You’re doing that wrong:  How outrage about reports of abuse not only doesn’t help solve the problem of abuse, and actually makes it worse.

 

The viral internet #metoo phenomenon of recent weeks has led to a deluge of reports of sexual misconduct by prominent, well known and powerful men.  These reports have brought a wave of outrage at these reports, which have in turn led to calls for the men alleged to have perpetrated this sexual misconduct to be punished by a variety of means, including loss of employment or position.  There is no question that the people expressing the outrage wish to see an end to abuse of the kind contained in these stories.  However, the result of the outrage is not a reduction of abuse – it actually contributes to less account ability being held to actual abusers.  This essay will discuss how that dynamic works out so unintentionally counterproductively, and then move into some ideas of more productive responses that can actually make a positive difference to the widespread social problems of abuse, and violence, including sexual abuse and sexual violence.

But, first, I need to introduce myself and my background, and why you might want to actually read this and listen to what I have to say.  I’m Blain Nelson, a recovering spouse abuser and domestic abuse advocate.  Twenty two years ago, in October 1995, before most people had heard of the internet or the WWW, I released a web document unambiguously titled “Blain Nelson’s Abuse Page.”  It was one of the very first web documents discussing abuse recovery, and received a great deal of attention, and accumulated a handful of awards for things such as courage in discussing topics that people would rather not talk about or think about.  It was based in things I had learned over my six months of weekly group meetings for spouse abuser recovery; with an eye particularly toward helping reach people currently in abusive situations find their way to safe and abuse-free lives.  The heart of that first web page was a list of questions to help people gain clarity on where abuse in their lives might be, but also included links to what few resources about abuse were available on the early web.  But I expanded it into a website where I also told my own story of recovery, and invited others to share their stories as well, including my now-former wife.  Over the decades, I have made changes to try to keep the website relevant to the web environment, and a few years ago I translated it into the form of a blog, which I’ve renamed “Abuse-free.”  I’m planning to create an agency under the Abuse-free name which is intended to provide support for those working to end abuse of all kinds in all kinds of relationships, particularly those in communities currently under- or un-served.  I periodically add posts to the blog, some of which are the logical precursors to this article, particularly The Myth of the Monster Abuser and the Immaculate Victim, No Bad Guys and Time to Stop propagating fear about Stranger Danger, and Registered Sex Offenders.

The problem of abuse is very wide-spread, despite near universal rejection of abuse of any kind in so many words – usually in the form of demonizing abusers as being horrible, monstrous, or “not real men.”  If contempt for abusers would stop abuse, it would have done so by now.  Some of those most vociferous in showing contempt for abusers include abusers themselves.  This is because while we as a society have clarity that abuse is bad, but not nearly enough clarity on what abuse is or what to do about it.  Which is the reason I have taken the approach I have on the web.  When I speak of abuse, I’m using a two-part definition, both of which parts I have inherited from earlier abuse advocates:

Abuse is any actions, words or attitudes which hurt, threaten or humiliate others, and

Abuse is a pattern of behavior designed to help one person gain or maintain power and control over another or others.

The former describes abuse by its result, the latter by its purpose.  Abuse is not about hurting people.  It is about power and control, which abusers believe they should have and need to have, for a myriad of reasons.  Hurting people is just a means for gaining that power and control that the abuser is willing to use to get what they want/need.  Abuser recovery involves exploring the need for power and control, and the beliefs that underlie abusive behaviors.  Shaming abusers does nothing to dismantle the belief systems that justify abusive behavior, or to alleviate their need for power and control.  It does build the belief in the broader society that abusers are horrible, monstrous beings, which serve to create conceptual space between the shamer and the abuser they’re beating up on.  The intended content of the shaming is “I am nothing like an abuser.”  The unintended consequence is a distorted image of what abusers and abuse look like in reality, which doesn’t lead to holding abusers accountable (a key step to ending abusive behavior).  As we try to make abusers “others” that are entirely different from “us,” we let ourselves off the hook for any abusive behaviors we have individually manifested on those around us.  We also tend to let others we see as “us” off the hook, and those we see as “other” are the ones to blame for the whole problem.  This can be seen in the phenomenon I mentioned at the start of this article: the response to reports of sexual misconduct by prominent and powerful men.  Politically designated tribal membership has a lot to do with how the accused individuals are responded to.  Reports of inappropriate sexual interactions by Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore and a teen-aged girl in the 1970s have been used as a political weapon by those on the left who wish to see Moore defeated to help lead to a change in the majority party in the U.S. Senate (which is not to say that all speaking out about these incidents are solely motivated by partisan political agendas, just that this is a factor in the responses we’ve seen.).  Meanwhile, Republicans who would like to see Moore win to solidify the Republican majority in the Senate have tended to want to minimize the seriousness of these allegations.  The roles were rather reversed in the 1990s with the reports of sexual misconduct on the part of Bill Clinton which Republicans tried to use as a political weapon to keep him from being elected and to hamper his ability to influence policy once he became president, while those on the left tended to minimize and justify his behavior because his agenda was more similar to theirs, and they just liked him.  He didn’t look to them like the picture of an abuser people had built by trying to demonize abusers.  The question of whether one is an abuser is not settled by popular vote.  It is settled by whether one has engaged in a pattern of behavior designed to gain and maintain power and control over another or others.  Liking someone doesn’t make them not-an-abuser, and disliking someone doesn’t make them an abuser.  Only holding those we don’t like accountable is an approach which will not help end abuse.  We need to hold each other and ourselves accountable if abuse is to really end.

Now, not everybody is motivated by an ultimate desire to end abuse.  That’s no big surprise, nor is it particularly wrong.  We all have a right to our own thoughts, beliefs and priorities.  I don’t insist people share my priority for ending abuse as their top priority.  I just ask that they (you) consider the results of their (your) choices and words concerning abuse, and change those choices and words in a way that supports the goal of ending abuse.  Some ideas about ways to make that change:

  1. Educate yourself further about the realities of abuse of all kinds.
  2. Respond to allegations of abuse based on the details of the abuse tactics described and the credibility of those allegations, not based on what you think about the accused nor the person accusing, nor what your ideological agenda might have taught you, like “Women don’t lie.”
  3. If the allegations are highly credible and the abuse described serious, do what you can to hold the alleged abuser accountable.
    1. Accountability can sound a lot like an apology, but it’s not exactly the same thing. In the public arena, purported apologies often turn out to be fake apologies:  “I’m sorry if anyone was hurt by what I did.  I never intended to….”  Real accountability requires:
          1. An honest and full description of the choices the individual made, without minimizing or rationalizing why it wasn’t that big of a deal, or why they didn’t really do anything wrong.
          2. Complete ownership of (only) their own choices and the consequences of those choices, without trying to pass responsibility for their choices off on someone else, especially the person harmed by their choices.
          3. Acknowledging that what was done was wrong, and what they are doing (clear, verifiable steps that are different than what led to the problem) to see to it that they don’t do this again, and to make amends to the person/people they’ve hurt.
          4. Following through on those steps sincerely, not just to bring attention to themselves and troll for back-pats and “good for you!” Accountability is a minimum to be expected from any adult, and doesn’t earn them any moral high-ground.  We don’t get strokes for paying our bills in life.

Constructively responding to allegations of abuse and misconduct isn’t as emotionally satisfying as piling on the shame (and abusing) the alleged abuser.  But it is healthier for all involved and produces better consequences.  Taking this information and using it when you find yourself witnessing abuse or talking to people who are being less constructive is a way that you can do your part to help build a world in which abuse of all kinds is no longer acceptable, and, thereby, less likely to occur.  Showing people what it looks like to respond constructively helps undermine the social dynamics that underpin abusive behaviors and attitudes.

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