REFINING THE DISCOURSE REGARDING ABUSE

This past week or so I’ve been ruminating about community and abuse quite a lot. This is another one of those times!

Unpopular opinion: I think we would benefit from doing away with the word “abuser.” Instead, I think we should focus on the behavior (the abuse) and the structures that allow/enable/encourage said behavior (the abuse dynamics). There are lots of reasons for this!

DISCLAIMER

Now. I’m not saying that all abusers deserve immediate forgiveness and/or endless second chances from their victims and/or communities. I don’t have complete answers for that, and I don’t think there are *any* one-size-fits-all approaches for this. Some cases of abuse are so extreme that forgiveness and rehabilitation from the people hurt by the abuse in not - and will never be - viable. Nor am I suggesting that there should not be consequences for abuse. Nor am I sympathizing with abusers generally. Nor am I saying that we just need to be nicer to those who have been abusive. None of that is my point.

It Gets Everything Wrong

First of all, I don’t think it’s the most accurate means of discussing abuse, and the implications perpetuate misunderstanding abuse situations. Examples!

  • A person does not need to chronically abuse in order commit abuse in isolated instances.

  • Addressing abusive behavior prompts actionable solutions. If someone is just “an abuser” what are they supposed to do? Not be? (This is in fact the implication in many cases - we’ll come back to this.)

    • Therefore, abuse is inevitable because an abuser will always abuse no matter what.

    • Therefore, we communities managers can’t really do anything about abuse, and have no real responsibility in the matter.

    • Except maybe to make sure that we have no responsibility for the abuse. Many community policies I’ve seen do a much better job at avoiding responsibility than addressing abuse, and I have to wonder.

  • A person who has behaved abusively in the past may or may not behave abusively in the future. Healing is possible, if difficult.

  • People who have behaved abusively have often only behaved so in one area of their life.

  • Abuse stems from a variety of sources (more on this later). “Abuser” promotes a gross oversimplification.

  • Labelling someone “an abuser” based on single or isolated instances is itself abusive (this single event defines and lessens your value as a person) and it comes packaged with the justification for the abuse (they are dangerous, therefore they don’t deserve community/intimacy/etc.).

  • Similar: Imposing assessments of personhood and general worth upon others is pretty fucked up, and re-creates deeply problematic (dare I say abusive) social structures. Reducing someone to a label is not okay.

  • People have abused but haven’t been outed as having been abusive are incentivized to take one of the following courses of action:

    • Protect/justify/dismiss/excuse/etc. outed abuse because if this other person is “an abuser” then they are too.

    • Take an extremely harsh stance on abuse, because surely someone who has abused wouldn’t do that.

    • Bury their own abuse ever deeper.

None of the above helps anyone address an abuse situation. It doesn’t help us understand it, it doesn’t help us respond to it, it doesn’t help us prevent it.

The only use “abuser” has is to punish someone. Justice for the victim may involve serious consequences. But punishment is also a tool of abuse that “an abuser” employs to control their victims. Endorsing punishment also endorses some forms of abuse. Our solutions to abuse must do better than this.

IT REINFORCES PATRIARCHAL VALUES

The “abuser” discourse upholds patriarchal dynamics and I would argue that this discourse does more to allow/enable abuse than it does to discourage/heal abuse.

Patriarchal masculinity sucks for everybody, though it it harmful/lethal to women, non-binary people, and really anyone who isn’t a masculine male. But there is a cost: patriarchal values drive men to suicide at an accelerated rate, discourage men from seeking medical care, promotes self-destructive and high-risk behaviors, discourage men from giving and receiving needed emotional support (thereby resulting in under-reported mental illness). Men benefit from the patriarchy, but the but the benefits come at a price.

The patriarchy and masculinity are huge topics. For now, I’d like to focus on two expressions of patriarchal masculinity:

  • Disconnection from your family, your friends, your partners, yourself.

  • Clubhouse mentality. As in, as long as you “pay your dues” (in the form of performing masculinity and aggressively upholding patriarchal values) you are in the club. But if you deviate from that for even a second you are out, over the edge without a splash, gone forever.

CLUBHOUSE MENTALITY ENDORSES UNACCOUNTABILITY

The “abuser” discourse supports both of these functions. Labelling someone “an abuser” is usually an effort to ostracize them from their communities now and forever. This is understandable - the harm caused is deep and real, and may never fully heal.

But. This ostracization has ramifications. Yes, it protects your community from this particular individual. But it does less than nothing to address past abuse or prevent future abuse or dismantle abusive power structures that facilitate the abuse in the first place.

The person who has behaved abusively is now isolated from their communities, perhaps just personally, perhaps also professionally (which may come with financial complications). Community is a primary source of healing and growth, and this is now unavailable to them. Further, this (probably traumatic, even if justified) experience is likely to inspire resentment and long term conflict - a fertile environment for continued abuse.

This also clearly reinforces the clubhouse mentality. This in and of itself is so literal I don’t even know how to zoom in for greater detail. But there are also other power structures at play here too - in-groups frequently abuse/victimize/persecute/etc. out-groups. In addition to upholding patriarchal structures, you have endorsed mistreatment of the ostracized individual in the name of justice. This is again a dangerous situation where the potential abuse comes packaged with a justification.

As a side effect, the person who committed abuse now has pretty firm ground to present themselves as the “real victim” here, further complicating future matters indefinitely, because the chances that this situation has been mishandled and individuals mistreated are real. Remember that isolation is used as an abuse tactic. (This is where my “not be” comment from earlier comes from: “you are broken and can’t be fixed, so go away, and if we will warn other communities about you so you can’t be anywhere at all.”)

But that’s not all! By raising the stakes so high you have ensured that people will fight to the bitter end not to be labelled “an abuser.” If there is no recourse, no healing, no growth, not even for a single incident, then people will make sure that they are not seen as having made even a single mistake - lack of accountability is not only encouraged, it’s necessitated. Please note that the operative word in the previous sentence is *seen* - the fact of abuse is less important than being perceived as an abuser by the community in question. This results in thorough toxicity within a community.

And if that’s not enough, people within the in-group are more likely to make excuses for each other because it’s comfortable and is easier to do as a group. While in-groups are likely to huddle together to protect one of their own, they are also just as capable of banding against an individual once group opinion against them reaches a tipping point (perhaps motivated by the individuals with the most social capital). This can become bullying/mobbing very quickly.

Again: I’m not saying that anyone is responsible for the abuse committed by another person. I’m saying that solutions our current solutions don’t address the deeper issues that “cause” (a term I use very loosely in this case) the abuse. If we are ever going to do anything other than select for more sophisticated abusers in our communities we need solutions that address these deeper issues.

To summarize: The clubhouse mentality reflects the social structure of patriarchal masculinity. Since patriarchal masculinity is often to motivator behind abuse, this will never help us. Unsurprisingly, clubhouse dynamics can easily give way to bullying which is generally bad, but in the case of bullying being directed at someone who has been abusive it may serve to confuse the matter even more and/or provide a justification for continued abuse, making justice even less likely. Further, the in/out nature of the clubhouse mentality motivates a lack of accountability because mistakes/transgressions/violations are not tolerated at all and may result in immediate ostracization. In-groups are also prone to protecting/covering up for their own, hiding abuse committed by those with the group’s favor. The term “abuser” belongs to this model.

To say that the clubhouse mentality is vulnerable to abuse is an understatement; it outright facilitates abuse in every aspect because it is build upon an inherently abusive social structure.

DISCONNECTION RESULTS IN A LACK OF EMPATHY

Unaccountability is one of two necessary components of abuse. The other is a lack of empathy.

There are several levels in which patriarchal masculinity corrupts empathy in men. I’d like to cite basically the entirety of bell hooks’ The Will to Change and Terry Real’s I Don’t Want To Talk About It when I say this: disconnection is where men’s empathy atrophies. Disconnection from our emotional lives, disconnection from our mother and families, disconnection from our communities.

As mentioned above, the typical response to “an abuser” is to ostracize them. This is severing a connection with a community, increasing the scope of disconnection that the “abuser” is already experiencing. Being separated from community also separates the person from a major source of healing - something that they sorely need in order to develop a sense of empathy that does not allow for abuse.

This disconnection is fundamentally a determination not to empathize. I believe that is is one of the most central issues to masculinity and masculine violence. Reconnection is one of the most powerful things we can do as men to heal from the toxicity of masculinity. If you want to read more about this, please read hooks and Real mentioned above.

Shame is also a motivator for abuse in men, and functions similarly to disconnection in this context. Men who feel like they are “underperforming” in terms of what it is to be a man, may try to get the results that prove their worth by any means possible. Maybe this means controlling their partner so that their relationship validates their masculinity. Maybe this means controlling their subordinates in order to bolster their own success. Maybe this means lying about something, or manipulating others. Violence is often used as a means of restoration for a man whose masculinity is perceived as being in question.

Summary: by enforcing disconnection and piling on shame on someone who has abused you might be giving them even greater impetus to abuse, or to refine their abuse tactics so they don’t get caught because they are now even more desperate to to have their masculinity validated. This increases the likelihood of future victimization, and decreases the likelihood of the person who has been abusive ever healing.

Perhaps this is why the end of abusive relationships are the most dangerous time. Perhaps this is why people who have endured abuse are afraid to report abuse. Perhaps everything pertaining to how we respond to abuse is broken.

WHO RECEIVES A PASS?

This also raises a question of who forgiveness is for, who gets the benefit of the doubt. This is of course related to the clubhouse mentality comments above.

I think we all already know the answer: people with lots of social capital, people who have cultivated good will for themselves through performing selflessness, people who are fun, (for gaming communities) people who make games that we like. The people with power. This is exactly what we are told to expect of people who abuse: charismatic, well-liked, pillars of the community, seemingly good actors, and so on.

It doesn’t matter if these people with social capital do literally the same kinds of things as those with less capital, forgiveness/excuses/second chances/benefits of the doubt are available to them that are not available to the rest, from the same people no less. It’s hypocritical double standard from everyone involved. It’s no wonder we still have abuse in our communities. Don’t forget that violence is used by those in power to maintain their power, and that social violence is violence.

Ultimately, the “abuser” discourse cannot be separated from people that are communually allowed to make that assessment, and it is just about always by the people with capital and power in a way that reaffirms that capital and power. Maintaining current power structures is the problem, and continuing doing so will never will never solve the problems it has created.

It’s interesting to note that connection is still allowed for those with social capital who are guilty of abuse whereas connection is not allowed for those guilty of abuse without the social capital. This is perhaps another reason why people who have endured abuse often don’t report it: it’s clear that the guilty party will not be treated as “an abuser” even if their guilt is acknowledged. If almost nothing will happen, what's the point in reporting if doing so will so will increase the risk of retaliation?

The community model that we generally practice doesn’t actually filter for abuse because it protects some people who have abused - often the people with the greatest opportunity to commit and conceal abuse. Nor does it filter for specific abusive behaviors, because it endorses the very same behaviors it condemns when applied by the right people. What is does do is filter by social capital: who is in and who is not, who is allowed to transgress and who is not, who defines abuse and who is beholden to that definition.

I’ll say it again: it’s no wonder we have abuse in our communities.

WHERE DOES THIS LEAVE US?

This is ultimately the way in which the “abuser” discourse encourages abuse: because the stakes are super high and even a single incident is enough people are encouraged to never be accountable or else. Imposing further disconnection via ostracization is at best unhelpful for restoring a sense of empathy, and at worst encourages victim stance/victim blaming as well as continued abuse. Social capital holds more sway in determining the outcome of an abuse situation than does the abuse itself. The result is an environment that is vulnerable to abuse, and endorses abusive mindsets, and facilitates ongoing abuse.

This doesn’t mean that it’s any one person’s job to rehabilitate someone who has been abusive, especially not the people that have been hurt by the abuse. But if we’re going to do anything other than brush it under the rug, if we are ever going to actually reduce the abuse in our communities, somebody has to do this work.

So what then?

Within the communities that I participate in, I see two kinds of abuse most regularly. The below are not clinical terms, just distillations of my personal observations.

Abuse from entitlement is perhaps the most common form of abuse. One could could also refer to this as “patriarchal abuse.” Men controlling the behavior of women in their lives through whatever means necessary falls into this category. So does parents abusing their children, and employers abusing their employees. Forms of institutional abuse probably also fit into this broad category, but I’m not ready to climb up on that soap box just yet as I suspect there are some unique nuances to that. The source of this kind of abuse are distorted beliefs regarding what is owed and what actions are justified if the things owed are denied. Many of these people are in fact sincere at some level even if they end up resorting to violence to maintain control. As in, someone who feels entitled to certain treatment does actually feel wronged when they aren’t treated that way even though they are incorrect, and abuse as a means of “righting that wrong”.

Narcissistic abuse seems less common to me, and is the result narcissistic personality traits. I’m not an expert in this from a psychological standpoint. Many of the characteristics in question are similar: inflated sense of grandeur, a need for admiration, believing in their own infallibility, placing their own feeling above those of others, unwillingness to empathize with others, power seeking behaviors. Those who abuse from narcissist are rarely sincere, and in some cases may not even be capable of sincerity. As in, they know that they are exploiting others as they are exploiting them, and abuse as a means of demonstrating their superiority or simply because they see an opportunity to seize some benefit. (I fully admit that I only have surface level knowledge of this; I’m sure there are folks out there with more sophisticated knowledge on this subject.)

Though these two can look similar, the difference is that one stems from a the promises to men made by the patriarchy, and the other stems from pathological inclinations. What’s important here is how you address these different kinds of abuse. As a former domestic violence interventionist I can tell you than men who abuse from entitlement *can* be reached. It’s difficult, yes, but connection to their emotional lives can be restored, empathy grown, and accountability established. But those that commit narcissistic abuse? I don’t know what to say other than good luck. You might manage to convince them that abusing others is not in their self interest. To the best of my knowledge that's about the most you can hope for.

These two groups need very different kinds of intervention and support. Lumping all forms of abuse into the “abuser” discourse is not helpful because not all abuse is the same, thereby interfering with our ability to understand and address the abuse in the first place.

Please drop this term “abuser”. It doesn’t help. It makes every aspect of dealing with abuser more difficult. It’s inaccurate. It’s convenient for those in power. It’s especially convenient for those in power who have abused others. It avoids doing the hard work of addressing abuse beyond single incidents. It upholds the same patriarchal values that endorse the abuse in the first place. If we are ever going to do any better than incremental progress in addressing abuse, we have to drop this discourse and the entire social structure it belongs to.

WHAT NEXT?

What should we do instead? I don’t know for sure. I don’t know how to balance the needs of justice for the victim with the needs of compassion for those who are reckoning with the harm they’ve caused.

I suspect that it will have to be done on a case-by-case basis.

I suspect that compassion, reconnection, rehabilitation, and forgiveness will be involved because the patriarchy doesn’t care for those things.

I suspect that shame, punishment, exile, top-down power structures, dominance, devaluing people, condemnation, and vindication will not be a part of it because that is the language of the patriarchy.

But I don’t have specific answers.I do have a few starting points though.

  • Focus on and address the behavior rather than the person.

  • Those with power/social capital should not be the ones defining and judging what is/isn’t abuse if at all possible.

  • There needs to be opportunity for growth after harm is caused, coupled with accountability.

  • Acknowledge that the patriarchy has touched all of us, and that all of us need to decolonize our minds of patriarchal beliefs.

    • Men, I don’t want to hear that you have “never abused anyone.” There was certainly a time when you were not aware of acting from a place of patriarchal entitlement, and you were certainly a willing participant in social structures that perpetuate abuse if absolutely nothing else. We have all been complicit at one time or another. But there is a way forward, and that’s what’s most important.

  • Men, working with other men is one of the most important things we can do. Who will work directly with those who have abused if not us, the beneficiaries of the patriarchy? Is there a better way for men to reconcile the harm they have caused than helping other men to discontinue their own harmful acts?

Consider this a call to action. What we are doing isn’t working. Be critical of our social structures. Imagine something better.

Please forgive me for generalizing and simplifying these things. This is already long as it is! Also, I have no doubt that I’m wrong about something and that my thinking on something will evolve. So you know, this is an ongoing process. Thank you for reading.