Sunday, July 15, 2012
Defining Abuse- we've got it wrong. No wonder we have a problem
I believe the fact that abuse is not often identified, acknowledged or dealt with is because we define it poorly, and rely on definitions based on objectivity or upon intentions (which allows someone to self-define as "non abuser"). This system of definition encourages perpetuation of abuse.
I propose a definition of abuse based on a person's experience rather than a definition based on intention. I propose the broadest possible definition of abuse.
For me, abuse is anything which causes a negative experience in another person, physically, emotionally, or spiritually. I include passing judgement (eg-"paranoid", "sensitive", "over-reacting" etc.) I believe that we all indulge in abusive practices a lot of the time. Why do I use this broad definition? Because the creation of "milder" categories such as rudeness, persuasion, giving some home truths etc. allows too much scope for people to continue hurting people and not call it abuse. This correspondence may be seen as abusive by some or all of you. If so, please feel free to let me know, and tell me how I could have addressed this issue in a more caring way.
I have deliberately removed the concept of INTENTION from my understanding of abuse. I now believe that most abuse is perpetrated with "good" intentions, or is based on "good" assumptions. So abuse is not about intent (in my understanding). I know that when people have a negative experience of me I am often unaware about what it is I have said or done that has caused harm. I still call that abuse....Why?
Who defines abuse?
One way of thinking about abuse is by thinking about who is entitled to define it. My preferred way of approaching this question allows for only 4 possibilities- that it is defined either-
1. By the recipient* or
2. By the producer* or
3. By shared understanding of the recipient and the producer or
4. By an independent person or group.
*here I do not believe that producer and receiver are mutually exclusive. In many interactions (?most) we are both simultaneously producers and receivers as the abuse flows both ways.
If you allow the "producer" to be the one who determines whether what they have done or said to another is abusive or not, then there is no room for the concept of unintentional or inadvertent abuse. We all have experiences that are negative, even from friends who pass judgement or give advice with good intentions. If these experiences cannot be defined as abuse, then for me there is too much room for confusion because there are too many shades of grey. In the confusion, there is too much scope for the generation of pain to be repeated or worsened. There is ignorance, and therefore LACK OF RESPONSIBILITY. I want a definition of abuse that leaves room for movement away from abusive practices and towards relationships that are caring and compassionate. I have witnessed many cases of abuse where the "abuser" has no idea that what they have done is harmful, when most other witnesses would call it abuse.
If you allow an independent person to define abuse, such as the College of Psychiatry or take a dictionary definition, then this also invites lack of responsibility for others feelings. Why? Because each of us has a different history, different life experience and this generates our understandings. So if I say to someone "you are special to me", that may be a term of affection and they may have a positive experience, but If I say it to someone who has been sexually abused as a child, I may be unwittingly using the abusers words and the person may feel physically sick. That, in my book, is abuse. I believe that in each of my relationships with people I have a responsibility to check on the effects of my interactions, and continually adjust how I communicate and respond, and act, to improve that person's experience. This is part of my definition of compassion. An impartial definition of abuse allows people to say or think..."Oh..What a pity that affected you in that way. You're so sensitive. I meant no harm, so I don't need to change. I have a right to tell you the truth. You need to toughen up. Get real." This is the "like it or lump it response". No change occurs, and that particular relationship is on a downhill run. Our society trafficks in sayings that support this reponse such as "No pain, no gain". Shared meaning becomes less and less accessible, as does working together. If the "abuser" continues to repeat the interaction despite protest, or information from the receiver that they are being harmed, the only option for the receiver is to cut off contact. This is their right. Any method of cutting off from abuse is legitimate to me.
If you try for a shared meaning of abuse, there is little room for the appreciation of difference of peoples experience and each person attempts to recruit the other to their viewpoint. Defensiveness, denial and self righteousness are invited into the relationship, and these, in my book, are the enemies of compassion, collaboration and goodwill. The worst situation is one of compromise, when both parties have to try to extinguish their understanding of some of their experiences- the ones that they now have agreed to no longer call abuse. They are called upon to do so, despite continuation or worsening of their experiences when that particular experiential context is repeated.
So, for me, the only definition that enables both parties to feel empowered is the definition where the receiver can define abuse. This gives explanation to the paradox where a relationship fails, and both parties feel abused. Under the old intention-based beliefs- that only one of them has created abuse, they can avoid seeing themselves as part of the problem and spend most of their energy defending their position. By the experience based definition they have both been abused.. They are both producers of, and recipients of abuse. Rather than defending their position, it leaves them with the choice as to whether to acknowledge and take responsibility for their part in the production. Each person as producer can then spend their energy on trying to "step into the others shoes". What is required of them is firstly unconditional acceptance that the other has felt abused. I believe this means a suspension of understanding. If you accept without understanding, you are more open to slowly learn by trying to share the others experience. The second requirement is often an acknowledgement. Most powerful in our culture is an apology.
An example of such an apology is.. "I'm sorry. I had no idea that what I did/said had caused you this pain. I don't understand how that happened because I am not you, and I don't know what your life has been like, but I accept that you felt abused, and I therefore have been abusive. I am determined not to repeat this, and I appreciate you letting me know. I want to learn more about how what you find hurtful because I value our relationship and want it to improve. I also appreciate how hard it might have been to let me know".
Because there are groups in our society who are more consistently abused I believe there is more of an onus for apology on those deemed more powerful. That is, more onus for men to apologise to women, Caucasians to apologise to other races, heterosexuals to gays, employed to unemployed, managers to workers, parents to children, the verbally articulate to the less articulate, and so on. There is no onus for acceptance of the apology. Some abuses are not forgivable, but the apology may help as a starting point for the rebuilding of some relationship.
If this sort of interaction occurs then there is room for shared meaning to grow, intimacy and trust, and the slow exclusion of denial, pride, self righteousness, sense of entitlement, anger and impatience from the relationship. There is a new side which emerges which is a SIDING AGAINST ABUSE. This allows people to retreat from the pain caused by having to TAKE SIDES against others.
Why do I define abuse in this way, and why am I so convinced that this is what is needed? Because the "conventional" or dominant cutural understandings of abuse, advice, judgement (and that includes all assessment of personality, including psychiatric diagnosis) have failed me. Until 1996 when I discovered a "narrative" approach to life, my own personal life was going downhill. I won't go into it here, but changing my understanding was the only way forward, and the rewards are great.
If individuals together, or groups can't model "POWER WITH", all that happens is a duplication of "POWER OVER", and POWER OVER, is, I believe, what generates a very large amount of the trouble in this world, both locally and globally. I make no judgement of the individuals who are involved in this abusive process. That is our culture. We are all trained in this way. The fish doesn't notice the water.
By defining abuse in such a broad way, I do not want to minimise the nature of anyone's own personal experience, and I would in some ways be happier if there were other powerful words for what I describe. However if I don't call harmful ways of being in this world "abusive" I would be shirking my own personal responsibilities. I must assume that at all given moments I am at risk of abusing others. If I fail to keep this thought foremost in my mind then I believe that this is the moment when I am most likely to reproduce the cultural practices of abuse.