CW domestic abuse.
One of the areas of language use I’m currently scrutinising is how I use the idea of made/make. It’s interesting to ask where the balance of power really lies, where I might be abdicating or ignoring my own power, and how unhelpful habits of conventional phrasing are in this regard. He made me do it.
It’s a phrase that comes up a lot around domestic abuse. The idea that the victim made the abuser act as they did is something many victims are subjected to. You made me angry. You made me hit you. As though the abuser is powerless and has no choice in face of the victim’s actions. That sense of being to blame for what happens is part of what keeps victims trapped in abusive relationships as they try to fix things, atone and do better.
The idea that someone else’s behaviour made you react in a certain way is popular with small children. I think much depends on how the adults around you then handle things. Which brings me to the flip-side of this issue – that it is equally problematic when people deny all cause and effect and insist that we are all responsible for how we react to things and not responsible for what we provoke in others. Upsetting someone isn’t an excuse for following through with violence, but at the same time, emotional harm needs taking seriously. If someone says you are making them miserable, the answer is not to tell them that they are wholly responsible for how they choose to feel.
We can and do make each other feel things. The person doing the feeling has some control over that process, but it isn’t total control. People can make you feel things you do not want to feel. Our words, actions, inactions all impact on other people emotionally. It may not always go as we intended, but if you want any power over the outcomes you have to be willing to also take responsibility. Can we make each other take action? I think how we act on our feelings is normally an issue of personal responsibility, but there are times when it isn’t.
People can be trained to act in certain ways. My understanding is that this is an important principle in military training. We often train creatures on these terms, with fear and threat of punishment so that they do exactly what is wanted of them without hesitation. We may choose to use rewards in the same way. If the threats and rewards on offer are significant enough, saying no isn’t really an option. If you’re given an electric shock every time you do the ‘wrong’ thing it won’t take you long to learn and stick with the ‘right’ behaviour.
I suspect most of us prefer to believe that we couldn’t be trained in this way. Sustained programs designed to train us will have that effect over time. Most of us cannot effectively resist such things. It’s not a comfortable thing to consider.
When it comes to writing, I’m comfortable discussing things in terms of how I am made to feel. I watch out for inadvertently saying ‘made to do’. At the moment, no one is running power over me in a way that makes me do anything – although that has been an issue historically. I’m watching out for the times when I give too much power away, ascribing too much significance to whatever prompts a feeling and not recognising how much is intrinsic to me. I take it seriously if someone habitually makes me feel uncomfortable. I step away from people who want to make me responsible for their actions. I’m not going to make anyone do anything, if I can help it.