I’m going to writing a series of blogs on what I’m terming “Macro-Level Abuse”, taking the strategies of identifying abusive behaviour from You Are Not Crazy and mirroring them to oppressive institutions in Eurocentric societies. There will probably be a little less nerd in these posts and I’d definitely love more examples from everyone about things they’ve witnessed.
Abusive vs. Healthy
What it means to abuse is a simple definition – use wrongly or improperly, hurt or injure, force sexual activity on, assail with harmful words, and to deceive or trick. It is a simple definition for a complex thing. What’s more important about abuse is less it’s definition but it’s intended purpose. It’s about achieving dominance and control through the purposes of manipulation.
While the explanation of abuse on You Are Not Crazy is designed to be applicable towards romantic relationships, I believe that the tactics of abuse on a micro level such as a personal relationship mirror tactics of abuse on macro social levels. Let’s look at a few of these examples provided and see how the apply to social systems.
Competition vs. Partnership
The differences here are outlined. Abusive behaviour seeks to minimise the contributions made and undermine attempts that the abuser cannot take credit for vs. being proud of accomplishments as a couple and providing support.
How is this applied to social systems of power? We see it when a privileged person says that a minority needs their support, that minorities must be nice to them. I have had this happen to me personally when one of my friends told me I needed to stop “attacking them” for “being straight” because gay people needed straight people to help get their rights just like black people needed white people to get their rights. How is this not undermining the accomplishments of queer people and people of colour (and indeed, queer people of colour)? This belittles the attempts of Medgar Evars, of Sylvia Rivera, of every person who white, straight folks can’t take advantage of. We see it when Pride events are co-opted or undermined by people who insist that these Pride events are somehow discriminatory.
Control vs. Intimacy
Abusive behaviour seeks to point out weaknesses to prove the abuser has superior strength, denies gathering or wanting power, and throws mistakes in the face vs. an empathetic ear who revels in successes and provides nurturing support through hard times.
How is this applied to social systems of power? We see it when stereotypes of the “weakness” of BME/POCs and women. Women specifically are encouraged to think of themselves as incapable of protecting themselves without the presence of men. People of colour are constantly portrayed in “weaker” state whether it is a stereotype of barbarism against black and brown people or a the stereotype of weakness or model minority against Asian people. Whatever shade other than white someone is, they can be interpreted as weaker than white in some way. And when mistakes are made by women or BME/POCs, it is often attributed to these weaknesses and thrown in the faces of those people. All the while men and white people deny ever wanting social power and accuse women who identify stereotypes as “harpies”, “oversensitive” or BME/POCs who point out racial stereotypes as “playing the race card” or downright “crazy”.
Contempt vs. Validation
Abusive behaviour seeks to disregard feelings, values, perception, dreams, accomplishments a insignificant or inferior, or just plain stupid vs. both people listening and being empathetic to feelings with a mutual sense of respect.
How is this applied to social systems of power? We see it constantly in the ableist combination of infantilism an tokenism of disabled individuals. Visibly disabled people are often treated as non-people who cannot be capable of the same range of emotions as humans whether it be sexual feelings, experiencing life with the same joy, or even being a jerk. Their accomplishments are lauded and degraded via “inspiration porn” where an image of someone with an amputated leg is participating in a sport and a caption reads, “Now you have no excuse”. Everything is framed within the context of able bodied individuals. The idea that they could value life in a different way is dismissed. It is assumed that disabled individual ought to be constantly pitied and their feelings, values, perceptions, dreams, and accomplishments are always measured against the significance of what able bodied individuals can accomplish.
Manipulation vs. Cooperation
Abusive behaviour seeks to exploit feelings to reach goals and to put down or threaten with pain vs. both people mutually respecting each other and deciding what’s wanted as a unit.
How this is applied to social systems of power? This is one of the more obvious examples to me. So many groups have had violence waged against them for refusing to adhere to a status quo that sees them as less than. But for the sake of making an example, let’s think about how mental institutions have been utilised as ways of threatening people to comply.
Women who did not adhere to the status quo expectations of sexual behaviour were diagnosed with hysteria (with treatments that may be lauded as some as crucial to the first inventions of a vibrator, might have, when administered by a doctor, been routinely performed sexual assault). Black slaves who wished to escape from their lot were diagnosed with Drapetomania, the cure of which being whipping or removing the big toes. And it’s known by many the DSM included homosexuality as a mental disorder for years and treatments ranged from shock therapy to lobotomy.
In each of these instances, we see how abusive attitudes within interpersonal relationships can easily be applied to a macro-level. It’s important to recognise that there is a visible pattern and goal towards these behaviours and call them for what they are.
In the next blog on this subject, I’ll continue to analyse the Abusive vs. Healthy dichotomies and explore the ramifications of abuse. If you can provide any further contextual examples of this, please do.
This article was published in October 2012 and last updated in September 2014.