Tag Archives: abuse

Who am I responsible for?

Without a doubt, any time we ignore abuse, hate speech and prejudice, we support it. We let the person carry on doing what they were doing. We let them believe we agreed with them. They will infer our tacit support from our silence and inaction.

Every time we ignore someone who speaks from a place of ignorance and misinformation, we’re letting things stay as they are, contributing to things that are wrong.

The trouble is that like everyone else, I have finite energy and I get emotionally knocked about when I step up to these arguments. I could spend all day every day on twitter, challenging haters, bullies, bigots and abusers. Well, in theory I could, in practice I reckon by lunchtime I would be a weeping wreck.

Who am I responsible for? It is not an easy or a comfortable question. I know some activists have become very clear that people should educate themselves. I understand why – advocating personal responsibility is a good idea. Demanding education is a way of sucking up energy and time, and derailing people. But equally, turning around how someone thinks is a massive and difficult process, if I can help someone do that then I’d like to. It’s partly about spotting the scope for change and trying to see who is for real and who is a time waster. I’m not that psychic, I don’t always know.

My primary areas of concern have, for some years, been mental health and domestic abuse. The former gives me some scope to speak more widely about disability issues, the latter gives me insight into the mechanics of abuse in all forms. I use that knowledge where I can. I care about everything but there are plenty of issues I don’t have the experience to really get into details. Faced with an online argument of that ilk I feel the most useful thing I can do is offer support for and agreement with the people who have the experience to speak.

It is so easy for well meaning people to get this wrong. It is so easy for people who are not well meaning to hide behind activism and take unfair pot shots at others. I am reminded of the feminist reviewer who called a mixed race author with a complex social background out for appropriation. I don’t think the reviewer had any idea who the author was. When we’re challenging each other, knowing the limits of our insight is essential, or we end up calling out the wrong people and hurting those we should be helping.

I like blogging because it isn’t an argument. It’s a chance to put forward thoughts and ideas, and to share experiences around the things I know about in a way that hopefully makes it easier for others to understand. I believe that we need to share our truth, tell our stories and speak of our experiences. And when we run into other people who are doing that, a bit of support and recognition can go a long way. So much of it comes down to ignorance, so much could be solved with better understanding.

It’s all well and good talking about punching Nazis, but I couldn’t usefully punch anyone, not with these hands. The clever thing would be to get to them before they become Nazis, but of course if it works you can’t even tell that it works. Keep talking keep supporting each other, keep doing what you can do. None of us can fix everything, or everyone.

Gnawing away at the roots

Trigger warnings – exploring the mechanics of abuse.

It’s all too common to imagine abuse in terms of obvious physical violence. In practice, when people are subjected to physical abuse it’s often late in a process that has already ground them down so badly that they don’t resist or complain and instead feel it’s what they deserved. The long term consequences of emotional and psychological abuse tend to be far more damaging than any physical abuse that is survived (but not everyone survives). Our criminal systems focus on bodily wounding.

Psychological and emotional abuse is not always deliberate. There is often no way to tell if it is meant to harm the recipient or not. People may be repeating their own family patterns and experiences, affected by their cultural background, religion, belief and so forth. They may think what they’re doing is fine, they may be projecting all kinds of crap onto their victim. This doesn’t lessen the effect, but it means if challenged they will be very clear that they aren’t doing anything wrong, and this makes them difficult to challenge. If you tell your significant other that they are hurting you and they respond by saying it is your problem not theirs, they are fine, it only serves to entrench the damage.

This kind of abuse is often a slow process of attrition and erosion. No single act will be enough to make you realise it isn’t ok. It’s just little nit picking criticism and complaints, it’s living without praise or kindness, it’s being told off and told you look lousy and that your cooking isn’t up to much. You make too much noise, you don’t smile enough, your taste in clothes, films, books, friends is piss poor… and slowly, day by day, more is shaved off your identity until you wake up one morning and you don’t know who you are any more, you just know you aren’t any good at anything and its all your fault.

You don’t know what happened. And maybe the person who did this to you tells you that they still love you, even though you look terrible and aren’t doing anything interesting. They still love you, even now you’re fat and boring. And you’re grateful to them. They’re heroes. No one else would want you in this mess and you are so desperately glad they are willing to put up with you that you’d do anything to try and make them happier. You wish you were a better person so that you could do more good things for them.

If you’ve grown up with this coming towards you from a parent, you may never notice that it isn’t normal or ok, and that your crushed self esteem and the anxiety that comes from it is not something that you deserve. If you take it from a spouse, you may keep taking it for years, all the while internalising your own alleged shortcomings. How do you tell that you’re ok when the key people in your life constantly undermine you?

There are no easy answers to this. It is very hard for a person in that situation to wake up and get out on their own.  However, most people who are being ground down in this way will defend the person crushing them if faced with a direct challenge (because you’re dissing the one person who can put up with them). A well meaning attempt to get someone out of this trap can instead push them further into it. The only thing I’ve seen work is to get in there and gently, persistently build someone up. Affirm them, praise them, encourage them, ignore whatever they do to deflect it. And keep doing it, for months, or years or as long as it takes for them to start questioning how rubbish they think they are.

Living with fear

I’ve had some years now in which to study the mechanics of anxiety as they manifest in my own life. There are things I’ve learned about fear that I think have a wider significance at the moment. We live with many things that cause anxiety – massive uncertainty and insecurity about jobs, money, the political future, climate change – even for people in relatively secure, relatively privileged positions, there’s plenty to feel uneasy about.

Anxious people do not make good decisions. If you’ve been locked into fear for any length of time, it will be easy to frighten you into doing things. Fear of it getting worse becomes a motivator, so threats have more impact. If people, especially people with power tell us there are threats, we are more likely to believe them.

We are more readily persuaded to run when we’re frightened. The good old fight or flight impulse will be holding our inner steering wheels. For some, this comes out as fight, for a redirection of anxiety into violent action. It’s easy to hate and blame when you’re in fight mode, easy to be persuaded to hate and blame. Flight mode make it easy to persuade you to run, and as running away isn’t always an option, that can be subverted into other kinds of running hard. Working flat out. Never daring to stop and draw breath.

Exhausted people don’t make good decisions. Fear itself is exhausting. Fighting mode is exhausting. Flight mode is exhausting. After a while, any apparently easy solution looks tempting. We don’t have the resources to scrutinise, to consider alternatives, to think about nuances. We just want someone to tell us where the quickest, easiest path out is. Fear makes it hard to think straight, or to see the lie in the apparent easy option.

On a domestic scale, these issues are all part of what can keep an abused person in an abusive situation. We’re seeing it at a country level. It makes us easy to manipulate, and anyone offering an apparently easy answer – however empty and stupid that answer is – seems far more persuasive than they should.

We can stop this, we can turn it around. It won’t be easy. We have to not feed into each other’s fight and flight reflexes. The idea that hard work will save us needs to go, just as much as the idea that hating the ‘other’ will save us. Hate can be just as much a panic response as running round in little circles.

Our government has had periods of talking about the country as though it was one big house. In the austerity household, there’s been a lot of suffering for ages. Like a domestic abuse victim, we need to recognise it isn’t our fault we’re in this mess. We need to see the tactics of our abusers. They say they are helping, only doing it for our own good, that it is necessary, and the only way. They lie, as all domestic abusers lie. We need to stop letting them persuade us and manipulate us and control us with fear. But, be warned, in a domestic abuse context, leaving is the most dangerous time, and there’s no reason to think this will be any different.

Healing, and playing the victim

Devote too much attention to your experience of being a victim, and someone will come by and knock you back. Wallowing in victimhood, you will be told, is bad, and wrong and just keeps you in that victim place and you should shut up about it and move on. We have a culture that does not give any of us much space for supposed negative emotions – grief, rage, pain, and so forth are to be tidied away and denied. It can also be uncomfortable for people who are fine, to hear from people who are not, because it may challenge assumptions and beliefs, expose vulnerability and/or complicity.

A person who has been a victim – be that of exploitation, abuse, assault, emotional, physical or psychological mistreatment has a process to go through. Abusers tend to be good at victim blaming. There will be reasons for what happened and the victim will have been faced with the reasons enough times to believe them. This happens because you are bad, you deserve it. You aren’t worth a proper wage, or respect, or kindness. You don’t properly qualify as a person so human rights don’t apply to you. Hearing those reasons keeps the victim in a situation. However, oppression can be bigger and systematic – as with racism and sexism. Your people deserve no better. Your gender has less value to this community.

In order to change anything, the victim needs to see their own victimhood. They need to recognise that what happened was not fair or deserved. Often this process means connecting with others who have had, or are having the same experiences. It is easier to see what’s wrong when you see it happening to someone else. In swapping notes, victims gain insight, courage and confidence. At this point, it is not unusual for non-victims to pile in and complain about the pity party, the reinforcing of the idea of victimhood. I’ve never experienced sexism so you other women are clearly the problem. I’ve never experienced racism so I don’t think it exists… and so forth. It doesn’t help.

When people recognise the abuse, and start picking apart the mechanics of the abuse, they become able to make changes. They get out of the relationship or the job, if it’s that easy. They start protesting and demanding equal rights – which evidently takes decades if not longer. There comes a point when the victims start demanding that the non-victims pay attention and make some changes.

If you don’t let people recognise their victimhood, you don’t give them the space to get angry and change things. If you don’t let people swap notes about their exploitation, you don’t let them organise to make change. If you don’t let victims speak about their mistreatment, you will never see what in the system facilitates it. You stay comfortably inside the system that is facilitating abuse. That’s no doubt why it is easier to complain about the pity party, tell people to shut up, and denigrate them for ‘playing the victim’. Otherwise we might have to deal with our own advantages and complicity, and that would be uncomfortable. It is easy to put personal comfort ahead of social justice.

Abuse and exploitation are not things that happen away, in private arrangements. These things happen in the context of cultures we are part of – systems, laws, balances of privilege that we are all upholding. If we make it the business only of the victim to work out how to turn that around and become a survivor, the underlying causes of abuse and exploitation remain, with our tacit support.

When you can’t do self care

You watch someone work, and work and burnout, and try to keep going. You try to help them by encouraging them to take better care of themselves, and it doesn’t get through – which is frustrating and off-putting. What do you do? I write this as both someone who has struggled with self-care and someone who has wanted to help others who clearly have the same sorts of issues. There are reasons some people can’t do it and respond badly to being told they need to.

Depression, which tends to cause feelings of low or no self worth, and any other self esteem issues make it hard for a person to feel like looking after themselves is worth doing. The idea of putting yourself first can cause huge feelings of guilt, shame, and failure. Thus a recoiling in horror at the suggestion of taking a day off.

For people living in abusive situations, or who have a history of being abused, it can feel, or actually be unsafe to take care of yourself. Even taking your own needs into account may provoke hostility, verbal abuse, criticism, mockery, being told you are selfish, lazy, useless, not taking proper care of others. You might have someone in your life who will take any excuse to work themselves into a state of anger, and from the anger may come physical violence. What happens if you are exposed to anything like this is you can take on the idea that it is your selfish lazy fault that has caused the perfectly reasonable anger and violence. So you learn to ignore your needs because it is safer to pretend you don’t have any.

For anyone with abuse issues, encouragement to self care can be a panic trigger. It’s really hard to deal with from the outside because it makes no sense to anyone who has not had their right to be a person stripped from them.

The best way to help, is to go in with logic. Here are some tried and tested thought forms.

Burnout is inefficient, if I rest now, I won’t burn out.

I will produce a better quality of work if I am less tired. My concentration will be better.

I am investing in being able to work sustainably and being able to meet more of my commitments.

It’s like putting fuel in the tank so you have something to run on.

A person who is able to stop, draw breath, rest and take care of themselves – even if they think they’re only doing it so as to work better – will slowly improve their self esteem. Once you get off the hamster wheel and aren’t running all the time it becomes easier to think rationally. Exhausted people are not rational, generally.

A person who can’t do self care because they’re in too dangerous a situation needs to realise this and get out. Telling them will not always help much. Support them in feeling worthwhile. Don’t tell them what they should do – that just undermines their already battered self esteem. Tell them that you care about them and want to see them well and thriving, and perhaps they’ll tell you why they are afraid of self-care. Always remember that for an abuse victim, the most dangerous time is the time when they try to leave – this is the time a person is most likely to be subjected to violence or even killed. It is always worth getting advice and support from the police for a safe exit.

Gaslighting the nation

Gaslighting is a term associated with domestic abuse. What it means is a deliberate process of destroying a person’s mind with the intention of leaving them unable to defend themselves, make decisions or trust their own sanity. A person who thinks they are mad, or whose reality has been damaged by gaslighting is much easier to control and abuse.

I think we’re seeing this happen at a national level. I’m going to speak to the British experience, but suspect it’s not just us.

We’ve had a lot of conflicting messages: Migrants are here to scrounge off the dole, but they’re also taking your jobs. We can afford nuclear weapons, but we can’t afford to look after the vulnerable. Socialists are an out of touch elite, while millionaires understand the needs of ordinary people… and many more such tales. Clearly these things don’t add up, but we’re getting a steady diet of incompatible ideas, which is more than enough to damage anyone’s sense of reality.

Gaslighters use blame and shame to control their victims. We have a government that blames people for not finding jobs despite the fact that universal employment is not feasible. The sick and disabled are blamed and demonised, as though their problems are wholly of their own making and purely about getting the pittance the government allows for those who cannot work. The poor are blamed for the consequences of poverty, demonised, dehumanised…  And in recent conflicts, we’ve seen teachers, doctors, and other once-respected professionals equally blamed for things beyond their control.

We’re told that we can’t trust experts and professionals. People who should know what they’re talking about – we are to believe – know less than unqualified, uninformed people. Doctors don’t know if their patients are too sick to work.  Teachers don’t know how to teach. Exam boards don’t know what subjects to offer. Scientists know nothing about climate change. Economists can’t be trusted to comment on the economy. Judges can’t tell us about constitutional law. And on it goes. Who do you trust in such a mad world? Who do you believe? How on earth do you make sense of things?

If the government and the media were living with us (we may be back in the austerity household for this paragraph) they would, under UK law, be guilty of controlling and abuse behaviour. If we, the other people in the austerity household wanted to run away from them, the police would help us get out to a place of safety. If any of us were treated by a spouse in the way the Tory party, and the media that support right wing politics are treating the British people, it would be very easy to label.

Why do people keep voting for politicians who will only hurt and harm them? I think it’s the same answer as why abuse victims so often stay with their abuser. When you don’t believe things could ever be better. When you have no hope, when you don’t trust your own ability to make decisions, when your reality is scrambled and maddening, you stay with what you know for fear that what you don’t know will be even worse.

It’s not an easy situation to get out of, but many victims of domestic abuse manage it, so perhaps whole nations can manage it too. It’s the point when you try to leave that a domestic abuse victim is most at risk of injury or death at the hands of their abuser. If we’re going to get out of the austerity house without more people dying, we need to look after each other.

Rape culture

Trigger warnings, not kidding about with the title.

It would be a dreadful thing to be falsely accused of rape. It might damage your reputation and cause the people around you to trust you less. Were the accusations to be believed, you might be dragged through the miserable indignities of a court case, and if you lose, you might spend a few years in prison, years of your life you can never have back.

Most reported rapes do not end in prosecution. If it is one person’s word against the other (and it often is) then we prefer, culturally, to err on the side or the accused. Innocent until proven guilty is a core tenet in law. If it does go further, the victim can expect to have their clothing choices, romantic history, even their reading habits brought up as evidence that they probably consented. If you knew your aggressor, the scope for proving that you didn’t consent, is alarmingly small unless you went to the police with the evidence of injury on your body. Even then, it may be suggested that you just like rough sex.

As a culture, we value the reputations of those who have power over the bodies and bodily safety of their possible victims. We assume the victims have nasty, malicious motives for saying these terrible things, and when the pillar of the community, the famous person you saw on telly, the politician claims innocence, we take that seriously. Even if multiple victims claim to have been abused, we minimise the harm done ‘it was just a bit of harmless groping’ and all too often, we let it go.

For a victim of assault, it is a life sentence that will affect your relationships, your sense of self, your confidence and mental health, probably to some degree for the rest of your life. If someone abuses you, there is something lost that is never coming back. For victims who were children when it happened, I suspect this is even more the case, but children have a hard time getting heard when the responsible adults around them turn out not to be so good after all.

As a culture, we prefer to think that people make up false allegations of rape, rather than consider that rape is happening. It has been pointed out to me that the skin colour of the man involved makes a lot of odds here, and that we are far more willing,  culturally, to find black guys guilty of rape, and for that matter other crimes too. It is worth comparing the implications. An unchecked rapist or child molester can get through a lot of victims, leaving a vast legacy of trauma. Do we really collectively think that to be falsely accused of rape is worse than being raped?

Now, imagine the balance shifted a little, and that we became just a little bit more willing to hear the stories of the victims and marginally more prepared to doubt the stories of the accused. What would happen? Would more men become more wary about getting into situations that would make them easy targets for accusations? Would more guys be less willing to have sex with drunk and unconscious women who might protest about it later? Would people of both genders be less willing to abuse children? Would some people reconsider the influence of their power, wealth, physical strength, financial control and other means of manipulation, and try to avoid exerting those to reduce the risk of their being accused of abuse? Might it become important to the men who don’t currently give it much thought,  to make sure that consent is clearly given? Might we collectively reconsider the idea that a short skirt, an invitation to have coffee, getting into someone’s home, getting them in your car and the like are not the same as consenting to sex? I can see only win here.

A shift away from the desire for short term gratification and towards more responsible thinking about the emotional and social costs, would be brilliant and would improve life for everyone. We teach our daughters to avoid dangerous situations that might get them raped. We need to start teaching our sons not to rape, and not to get into situations of dubious or pressured consent, which is not consent. A little shift would go a very long way.

Abuse of language and person

I had a discussion with a friend a bit back, in which I commented on the issues of saying ‘I suck’ and she said…”What I think he really means is…” It gave me a double take. What on earth were we doing, trying to interpret so simple a statement? I’ve had situations where I apparently should have understood ‘never’ to mean something less absolute, and where my saying ‘no’ was not understood as ‘no’ by the person hearing me. This is dangerous territory.

I can point at a few things that got us here. There’s the pop-psychology stream, giving us a tenuous shared grasp of interpretation. What does he really mean? What is she implying? It’s become more relevant because parts of modern life are full of double speak. When someone selling a property says ‘spacious feeling’ we know the place is probably small. Any time a politician opens their mouth, we expect them to say something other than what they mean, carefully hedged so that afterwards they can pretend they were honest with us all along. We’ve learned to mistrust apparently plain speech.

The idea that someone means something other than what they’ve said feeds the passive aggressive approach, and is fed by it. “Fine” does not always means fine. Sometimes it means furious. “Do what you like” can mean “do what I want you to do or suffer the consequences.” It can also be the defeated whimper of a person who has given up trying to get themselves heard, and that can be problematic, too.

The trouble with interpretation, is that you can read anything in, and insist on its presence regardless of what the person speaking tells you they meant. You can go further and decide the other person had unconscious impulses that make your interpretation right. If you want to do something they are not consenting to, deciding you can interpret their unspoken desires is a route to doing as you please. “I know what you really want” is a dangerous and destructive line to take.

We second guess each other. We look for deeper meanings and implications that weren’t there. All too often we ignore the possibility that the surface language was fair and true. If we can’t tune into each other’s distortions and double speak at this point, we are doomed to mutual incomprehension. Then we can follow through by blaming each other for lying and misleading.

Language is a flawed, but also fantastic tool. It is the underpinning of human co-operation and we depend upon it to share and develop ideas. And yet we deploy it carelessly, and bend other peoples’ to distort their meanings. We do not say what we mean and then get angry when other people fail to understand us. Or we get angry with the people who do carefully speak and understand in literal ways.

We need to say what we mean. We also need to assume other people are saying what they mean because it’s probably the only hope we have of weaning each other off passive-aggressive language use. We need to give a good, hard look at those facets of our culture that are corrupting language with on-going misuse. Or we end up unable to talk meaningfully with each other, interpreting ‘I never want to do that,’ as ‘maybe later’ and “you are hurting me,” as “I like this, please do it again.”

I gather it is a Domestic Abuse awareness week here in the UK. I’d like to point out that wilful re-interpretation and misinterpretation can go a long way to enabling abuse. When nothing you say is taken at face value, it is impossible to speak. Your words will be reinterpreted to suit the inclinations of your abuser. When nothing they say is to be taken at face value, and you might be harmed if you don’t understand what they really want, words become weapons. They become the justification for weapons. Interpretation can become a reason for violence, for forced sex, for shouting and breaking things. The implications are huge.

Taking a person at their word is an important mark of respect. If that is taken from you, the damage to your sense of self is massive. Being able to trust what you hear is essential if you are to feel secure. If you’ve got to constantly second-guess what is being said to you, then you never feel safe or comfortable, you are always anxious and on edge. That’s no way to live. If a wrong interpretation will lead to a denigrating bout of verbal abuse, or a bodily assault, you learn to be really afraid of getting it wrong. You also feel like this is your fault and responsibility – you are the one too stupid to understand, so it’s because of your mistakes that you are assaulted. There’s huge psychological implications to feeling that way. It destroys your sense of self.

This is what we do to each other when we let over-interpretation go unchallenged. We make a culture in which some women are not able to say no to sex because their words are twisted to mean other things. We make a culture in which some men think its ok to hit the person who didn’t get what they really meant. If we stop abusing the language we will edge in the direction of not abusing each other.

The irrational ones

Don’t worry about her; she’s irrational. A bit melodramatic. She tends to over-react, bless her, so you’ve got to take everything she says with a pinch of salt. Over blown. Over emotional. Unstable.

Then, when you find her crying, you won’t take her seriously. If she gets angry, you won’t really listen because hey, she’s a bit over the top, no point adding to it. If she says she is hurt, you’ll know it’s because she’s hypersensitive.

It works the other way too: She’s an ice queen. She’s totally unemotional, cold, hard, logical and manipulative. If she cries, its only because she wants something. If she expresses emotion at all, it is just a ploy to make you do what she wants. And so again, you don’t see and you don’t hear, because you’ve already written her off.

‘Her’ in both cases, would have been me, but undoubtedly not just me. These methods for diminishing a person tend to be entirely deliberate. They serve a purpose. By invalidating a person’s emotional responses, you make it easy to treat as irrelevant anything they are unhappy about. If you want to hurt someone, this makes life a lot easier. It is so important not to buy these stories, because any time you do, the odds are very good that you’ve just enabled an abuser to carry on mistreating their victim.

Along the way I’ve met people with hair trigger responses, to tears and temper alike. I’ve met people who are touchy, moody, easily affected, and while I accept that means their responses may be sudden, unexpected and intense, this does not invalidate them. We all feel things differently. There is nothing wrong with turning out to feel more, or less than the next person does. The odds are there will always be more difference than similarity on this one.

Many abusers are able to get away with what they do precisely because they persuade so many other people to buy into their story. The victim, hearing the same thing on every side ‘you’re just over reacting, it’s no big deal’ learns they cannot trust their own judgement. You stop thinking you can tell, you doubt your own decision-making capacity, and maybe start to feel like you are going mad. You lie there, bruised and sobbing, telling yourself to pull yourself together and stop making such a fuss. It wasn’t that big an insult… just a shove, not really a punch…it was just words… maybe they didn’t mean it that way. And all the time, the abuser sharpens their knives and keeps laughing.

Be careful with other people’s stories, especially stories that invalidate someone’s feelings. They are often not quite what they seem to be.

In self defence

The most dangerous time is when you say ‘no’. When you try to get out, or run away, or resist the pressure to do as you are told. The time when you call them out for breaking the law. I’ve done it, and I’ve watched others do it. It doesn’t matter if you’re thinking about abusive partners, malevolent companies, bullying bosses, irresponsible landlords… the time they are most likely to seriously hurt you is the point at which you stop going along with their bullshit.

I’ve heard the other stories too, the people who keep their heads down and do as they are told. The ones who accept a change to the rules, and another, and another, until there’s nowhere left to go. The trouble with bullies, in every walk of life, is that the more you acquiesce, the more able they feel to keep doing it to you. Stand up to them and you will incur their wrath, but sometimes, it is possible to win through, get out, get justice.

It’s a pretty terrifying sort of process though. The more we do it, the more we refuse to accept those who would walk over us, the less it happens to other people, too. I keep telling myself this every time I get into one of these fights… it’s not just about me. It’s for the rights of those people who are not able to fight, who are too beaten down already, too abused to realise that what is happening to them is not acceptable.

Here we go again, to the theme music of Professor Elemental’s Fighting Trousers and Talis Kimberly’s Belling the Cat. Anthems for a hard day. Raw, exhausted, running on empty, too tired to work, needing to work. Too tired to fight and having to fight. Forgive the shortness of blog.