Some years ago, I spent two terms on a course for abuse survivors, run by the Freedom Program. It really helped me get over what had happened and move on, and it taught me a great deal. One of the things I learned was this: Everyone there felt that other people present were far worse off than them.
Everyone had stories, and those stories were ghastly, heartbreaking and all too real. They were all far worse than anything I’d been through. But then an odd thing started happening, because other women, on hearing my stories, would say they thought it was far worse than what had happened to them. This shocked me. We all thought we’d probably deserved what had happened to us, but refused to accept that anyone else could possibly have deserved what happened to them. Through this we all began to question our feelings about our own experiences. It was a challenging process.
The idea that someone else has it worse, and we therefore shouldn’t make too much fuss may be relevant if you’ve merely broken a nail, or been slowed down by bad traffic. Perspective is useful in face of middle class, first world problems. However, that same line of thought absolutely does function to keep people in dangerous and damaging places. After all, it’s not like he cut you, other women get cut. Compared to being raped by a stranger, forced sex from someone you know really isn’t so bad. It was just a slap, not the same as being beaten up. It was only being beaten up, it’s not like you died…
Women who were imprisoned will say how much worse it must have been for women who were beaten, who think the victims of sexual assault were much worse off, but they in turn look to the women who lost their children in court battles, and feel that was much worse and the women who lost their children are so thankful that at least no one destroyed their mental health and the women whose minds were broken are busy feeling fortunate compared to the ones who were made prisoners in their own homes.
There is no hierarchy here. This is no reason for telling 90% of the victims to shut up and recognise that only one of these was really bad. The idea of a hierarchy of suffering is used to make us shut up and stop complaining. I was hit by one only this week – I should be grateful because I’m not picking plastic off rubbish dumps in a third world country. But here’s a thing: The shitty situation in my country is not a separate issue, and tackling problems here would also tackle our habit of creating this kind of waste and sending it abroad. The idea of a hierarchy of suffering breaks down the connections between problems and obscures the truth that these things are all connected. None of the things that are wrong in this world exist in a vacuum.
Think properly about the misery of the traffic jam, and you might indeed come to question commuter culture, city planning, economic pressures, modern economic models, international trade agreements and the whole structure of modern society. You can do that starting from anywhere. Don’t look for the hierarchy, look for the connections. Look for how your problem is related to someone else’s, and is part of it, feeding the same mess and creating misery. That way we can start to see what small things we might solve, that lead to actually fixing even the biggest things that are wrong. Most of those big things are gatherings of small problems, too, and it is the act of not taking the small problems seriously that prevents us from getting anywhere near the big stuff.