October 6, 2020 dailies

What does it mean to humanize abusers? (Day 2)

I don’t have time to write a lot today, and I thought about “cheating” and posting some half-finished draft content, but then I figured that was defeating the point of this exercise.

From Abby Honald:

I’ve never agreed with “don’t humanize abusers”, and here’s why: We SHOULD humanize them. Here’s why: we will never stop abuse, or protect potential victims, until we make sure everyone knows that most abusers are relatively normal people with (at least some) likable qualities.

The myth that abusers are some sort of alien monster species is pervasive and problematic because it prevents people from believing victims of abuse. They imagine an “abuser” must be “all bad” and since they have seen some good, the allegation must be false. This isn’t logical, but when are people logical? So I agree, it’s important to change this cultural misperception. Those who abuse their power are not demons, however diabolical their actions to their victims.

That said, humanizing abusers does not mean projecting on them thoughts and intentions that are not theirs. It is difficult—impossible, even—for most people to comprehend why someone would commit an act of child sexual abuse. Therefore, we often assume the molester must have had an out-of-body moment and must feel as awful about it as we imagine we might. In most cases, that is a mistake. It’s more helpful to think about “crimes” you commit without worrying too much about it—say, speeding, or parking in a no-parking zone. This is a better way to imagine the mindset of someone who abuses another: “What’s the big deal? I wasn’t hurting anybody. The rules don’t make sense, anyway.” (This is a good moment to recommend Hunting Warhead again if you are ready for some quite chilling interviews with a serial child sexual abuser who said, “Certainly I didn’t hurt anybody as far as I’m concerned. Not physically anyway…")

I tweeted about this the other day: we tend to imagine abusers are sociopaths (monsters with no empathy) or addicts (good people with a terrible weakness who hate their mistakes), but the truth is that self-justification is part of human nature. The difference between “us” and “them” is what we’ve convinced ourselves is “okay”. This goes for those who fail to take the right steps to investigate abuse, too. As we see over and over, a person’s ideas of what’s okay can change quite quickly when the situation goes from a hypothetical to something specific and personal.

I’m starting to think the word “abuse” is part of the problem. The word conjures up thoughts of “monsters” and “torture” and it makes people defensive and prickly. It is not helpful to divide the world into “abusers” and “good people” when reality has much more nuance to it.

We are relational beings. We want things of each other—that is normal. In a healthy state, we would ask for what we want and accept the other’s right to say no. But there are so many unhealthy behaviors that we normalize. Before the “monstrous” abuser who demands and takes by force is the person who lies and takes by deceit… and before that, the person who manipulates and guilt trips and nags… What else do we accept as normal? That is a topic that deserves its own post.