The brain is a physical structure which is shaped by what we do with it – learning, practice, habit, life experience, memory – this is all part of the mix. Our minds are not amorphous things separate from our bodies but real, tangible structures that respond to what happens to them. Hit someone in the leg with a hammer and you will get nasty bruises, and possibly a broken bone. As a culture we take that kind of thing seriously. However, we seem to assume the mind is a whole other thing. Violent assaults on the psyche are not assumed to cause breakages in the same way. Now, when it comes to considering criminal damage, it will always be hard to produce evidence of psychological trauma, but I see no reason why that should make it culturally acceptable. I find myself wondering if depression and anxiety are to psychological damage what bruises are to the hammer.
For many the idea of psychological violence will involve really overt forms of torture. In practice we aren’t talking about watching puppies being drowned, or being threatened with death for not complying. Most psychological violence is far more every day. As a child I was taught the rhyme ‘sticks and stones will break my bones but words can never harm me.’ It’s a commonly held idea. Bullying words aren’t causing you real pain, is the theory. We’re taught to accept this kind of bullying and to feel ashamed if we are hurt by it. This only serves the abusers. Humiliation, denigration, ridicule, dismissal, all undermine the sense of self. These things take away self-esteem and your feeling of being a person. The lower key, more mundane stuff is insidious, and can be inflicted daily. I remember a woman whose husband shouted at her all the time. She was a mess, but did not feel she could go to the police because she expected they would tell her she was being silly. He hadn’t laid a finger on her, but her nerves were tattered. I do not know how that one ended.
It’s so easy to make clear to a person that they are worthless, useless, a nuisance, unwanted, unloveable, unacceptable. The martyred air of one who is having to go to some lengths to tolerate you, is soul destroying to encounter. Having holes picked in the smallest things that you say and do, as though your small tastes and preferences are stupid. Being blamed is another one. Having your emotions ridiculed. Try being bullied to the point of tears by a person and then have that same person call you melodramatic and irrational for crying. A bit of you dies on the inside.
Being shouted at, being mocked, being the butt of cruel jokes. Your body treated as a sexual object, not a living expression of yourself. Or, your body treated as disgusting, or as something to laugh at, or as something you should feel ashamed of. Try telling someone they’d look so much better if they wore what you told them to, day after day, and see if their self-esteem holds up… or don’t if you’re any kind of decent human being. Lecture, demand, punish, tell off other adults as though they were especially stupid children. So often the one dishing it out is painfully insecure and only doing it to big themselves up. That flailing, fragile ego can be a source of so much pain and destruction.
Evil is often small. The worst things we do to each other are often mundane. Most of us will not be literally stabbed in the back. It’s that other stuff, the bruising of soul, the cutting up of identity, that causes the damage. The wounding to feelings is not fantasy, it’s not something we *should* be able to shrug off. Emotional experience is no less real than the hammer, and the brain is no less a physical structure than the leg.
What worries me most at the moment is the campaign of psychological violence being deliberately waged. The perpetrators are in the media and in parliament, and the people they are working to destroy, are the poorest and most vulnerable in society. Slackers. Scroungers. Worthless, useless, sponges, waste of space… and who, being presented with that on a daily basis, does not feel themselves dying on the inside? Who can hold out against that and not start to feel that the world might be a better place if they were dead?
Depression kills people. If you bully a person to death with sustained psychological violence, they are no less dead, and you are no less guilty of killing them then if you had done it with the hammer instead. The law might not be able to judge it, but a culture can. We do not have to lie down and take it. We won’t fix it by taking up the same arms and using psychological violence back. That’s just another way of losing. Of course it’s tempting, of course we feel justified, and want to lash out and even the score, but all that gets in the end is more pain, more damage. We can say ‘not good enough’ and we can disagree, non-violently. Not just with the politicians, but anywhere people start taking word-hammers to other people’s minds.