This past week, a group in England calling themselves Abuse Sticks Out launched a guerilla campaign exposing, or rather (as it was a shock to no one) “reminding,” the public of Chris Brown’s woman-beating.
They accomplished this with stickers placed on his new album that read: “WARNING: Do not buy this album. This man beats women.” The public reaction was, as expected, enthusiastically supportive.
They then expanded the campaign, this time targeting John Lennon and the reaction veered into shock and unease.
In a statement to Spin magazine, the group had the following to say: "We live in a society that splits an abusive man's actions from his public persona. With one in four women experiencing domestic violence and, on average, two women being killed in the U.K. by abuse each week we want to make these abusers stick out. Society ignores their abuse. We won't."
In case of Chris Brown, this does not apply. There has been no splitting of any kind. The gruesome results of his abuses were, from the start, public and revealed in almost real time. The victim was herself one of the most popular singers on the planet. There was no separation between who Chris Brown was as a celebrity and what he did as a private citizen. It was all there. Imagine, and do pardon the allusion, if this is how John Lennon’s beatings had played out. Not gently confessed in a now-obscure Playboy interview long after his image had been deified, but exposed on the front page in horrific living color when he was first entering the public sphere.
But, of course, that is not what happened. Celebrities ultimately are strangers—we have indicted some for less and forgiven others for more. But the difference in our reactions to John Lennon versus Chris Brown is not based on a whim or a racial bias or a double standard. John Lennon confessed, essentially unprompted, to his past as an abuser long after it was over and couched that confession in an apology. Chris Brown only apologized because he got caught. And it is, of course, a given, to paraphrase Lloyd Bentson, that you, Mr. Brown, are no John Lennon
But whether or not we condemn these men is on some level academic. Chris Brown knows that we, “society,” denounce his behavior. I am sure he knew that three years ago before he ever even raised his fist. People do things all the time knowing that they risk social ostracism if discovered.
That is the key, “if discovered.” These stickers do not inform us that men abuse women, they remind us that in general we don’t find out about it. In that respect, John Lennon is a better target than Chris Brown for this campaign, “warning” us that one’s darkest actions, abuse in particular, are often hidden.
And therein lies, I think, the missed opportunity. Breaking the cycle of abuse relies more on empowering its victims than simply exposing its perpetrators. Though they could not have intended such an outcome, Abuse Sticks Out has allowed the Chris Browns of the world to retain their power and remain at the center of our conversation on domestic violence. A more effective campaign might have cut him out altogether, might have given his victim a voice and used Rihanna’s own words as stickers on her own albums: “This happened to me and it can happen to anybody.”