Tag Archives: honourable living

Psychological violence

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.

Entitlement and Honour

What I want to talk about today is a habit of thought that I think is both dangerous and damaging. It’s also far too easy to slip into, and I suspect it is something we all do to some degree.

The thought form goes something like this. “Because of this thing, I am entitled to act in a certain way.” To develop that, we might say “Because I am in pain it is totally reasonable for me to be short tempered.” That’s a line it’s easy to accept. “Because I earn the most money, I should be the one who makes all the decisions.” “Because I did not like what you said, I am entitled to hit you.” No doubt you can come up with plenty of alternative versions.

It’s a slippery slope to get onto. Now, everything we do is undertaken in a context. Our own feelings are part of that. If we are hurt, we become angry. If we are frustrated we may want to lash out. Feeling a thing is always fine. There can be no wrong feelings, they are simply how we respond. The difficulty arises when that feeling is then used as a justification for subsequent behaviour. Not only is this an issue in abuse situations, but it is something to consider in terms of personal honour and how we treat those around us day to day.

If we rely on justifications, do we accept the same justifications from others? Is it fine for someone else to be snappy with us because they were tired? Is it fine for someone else not to have done a job because they just didn’t feel like it? Wherever we draw our lines, integrity demands that we are consistent. If it is truly justified for us to behave in a certain way given the right circumstances, we have to make the same allowances for everyone else.

Closer scrutiny of the attitude that ‘I am justified because’ can lead us towards the uncomfortable conclusion that really our belief is ‘I am justified because this is what I want.’ When it comes to behaving badly, taking, using, not bothering and not taking care, this is at heart an act of laziness. It’s painfully easy to do, and becoming aware of doing it is very uncomfortable.

There are ways of handling it better. For example, I am frequently difficult around menstruation, I become impatient, short tempered and the pain makes me crabby. I do not always manage that well. If I snap at someone and follow through with “Well tough, I don’t feel good, I can’t help it,” I reinforce having knocked my victim back. If I instead apologise, recognise that I am spiky because of pain and make clear the problem lies with me, not the other person, they at least know not to take it personally and I have at least managed not to compound the initial slip by trying to justify it. If I think pain, illness or some other issue is going to affect me – moodwise, workwise, concentration etc then I try and warn people in advance. I’ve found that helps where circumstances make it genuinely difficult to maintain perfect self control. Explanations tend to work better than justifications.

No one manages to behave with perfect care and mindfulness at all times. We are human, flawed and fallible, and when life throws us challenges, we are not always going to field them with perfect grace. What matters, is being honest about that. Acknowledge the mistakes, recognise the reasons and they do not become entrenched as assumptions and justifications. Alternatively, if we get in the habit of justifying, it’s so easy to keep sliding down that route, towards an understanding where something as small as irritation justifies causing pain to another, or the suggestion that we are somehow less than perfect makes us feel entitled to verbally attack our ‘accuser’. I’ve seen that done, and it isn’t pretty, but I doubt anyone starts there.

The limits of tolerance

On the whole I think there’s a lot to be said for a ‘live and let live’ outlook. I prefer to think the best of people unless I have a very good reason to do otherwise. I don’t imagine everyone should think, eat, act, dress or believe exactly the way I do. But there is a line that can be crossed here. A point at which tolerance ceases to be honourable. It’s very easy for tolerance to become indifference, and mean turning a blind eye to the immoral, unacceptable and downright evil.
There are things it’s easy to point at and say we should not tolerate. Child abuse. Murder. War. Lying. Cheating. Anything dishonourable. For most of those (the exception for me being child abuse) it’s possible to think of scenarios where they would be acceptable. Lying is dishonourable, unless Ann Frank is in the attic and Hitler is at the front door. Life would be so much easier if there were clear cut lines about everything. I think much of the potency of honourable living stems from the sheer difficulty of doing so. And some of that has to do with how challenging it is to even figure out what an honourable course of action would be in any given circumstance.
Where do we draw the lines for tolerance? How accepting should we be? The only real measure we have for deciding if we find something objectionable, is our own subjective, emotional response to it. Our culture, personal history and beliefs will colour that.
I think if you encounter something you don’t like the first question to ask is, why? Be as precise as you can about what bothers you. The more you question yourself at this stage, the easier it is to work on the issue. It’s easy to identify a group of people who seem to personify something we don’t like – foreigners, teenagers, the poor, the rich, the religious, the non-believers, and ascribe characteristics. Most people reading this blog will be conscious of prejudice and guard against it in their own thoughts. But, there is a world of difference between saying ‘all teenagers are evil’ and ‘bored teenagers who have no self esteem can behave in ways I really don’t like.’ The more precise we are, the better. Sometimes, in the process of scrutiny we can find what makes us feel intolerant has far more to do with our own feelings, things we dislike about ourselves even, than anything external.
What harm does it cause? If no one, and nothing is suffering as a consequence, then it really doesn’t matter. And at the same time, if you look hard enough, pretty much every human behaviour can be construed as harmful if you can get to it from the right angle. Especially when beliefs get in the mix. Think of the fear of social and family breakdown that homosexuality seems to inspire in some people. Plenty of intolerance has to do with fear. So if you aren’t sure if it is fair to judge someone else, ask what, if anything, you are afraid their behaviour means, or could lead to. Ask what kind of judgements you are making about their right to choose, and the willingness of any perceived victims.
When is it ok to judge someone else? When would it be dishonourable to accept an action, statement or belief? How tolerant should we be, for example, of intolerant faiths and political stances that would, if given power, supress the very tolerance that allows it currently to continue? How much should we be guided by the fear of causing offence?
One of the hardest challenges facing a liberal society, is how to deal with illiberal elements within it. To force liberal values onto others makes a nonsense of the very values liberals cherish. And equally, to empower those who will use that to disempower us, is madness. If we want to embrace everyone, understand everyone, make room for every perspective, how do we do that without the most aggressive voices coming to dominate? How do we do that without giving a big, fat, useful platform to the people who most want to make everyone else conform to their view?
What can’t you tolerate, and why? It’s informative to make a list. Aside from physical abuses, I think the thing I’m least tolerant of is dogma and assertions of certainty where there can only be opinion. My personal feeling is that if people could reliably discriminate between facts and interpretations, facts and beliefs, facts and emotions… the world would be a much better place and most of these other tolerance issues could safely be left to evaporate.
What can’t you tolerate? Please do comment.