Tuesday, May 15, 2012

On Monsters...

There's a piece up on Feministe about abuse; there are a lot of really moving comments from people who faced abuse and the sorts of emotional and mental consequences of that abuse.

One of the things that I sometimes struggle with--and I'm sure that I'm not alone--is the way that we tend to dehumanize the perpetrators of violence. It's something that I've noticed in the past, and I work not to do it anymore, but it still happens. There's a tendancy in conversations about abuse to start thinking of the perpetrators as monsters. In the thread on Feministe, the second comment is "Progressive political views mean nothing when one is a monster underneath."

It's a very well intentioned sentiment, I'm sure, and I agree with the message--just because someone has progressive politics doesn't mean that they're not tremendously regressive in other ways--there are plenty of very racist, sexist, transphobic, homophobic, or otherwise bigoted progressives.

The fact is, even the best of us are only human.

Equally important: even the worst of us are human.

There are some really horrible people out there--people who will take delight in harming other people. People who find some satisfaction in emotionally or physically abusing others. There are also people who are, as another commenter points out, "deeply disturbed individuals." Either way, the behaviors can certainly be monsterous, but I try very hard not to call the indviduals involved "monsters" themselves. Labeling someone a monster can be very comforting, in a way. It's a way for us to marginalize what they've done and put it into a box, but it erases how very human most so-called monsters really are. 

To some degree, labeling someone a monster implies that the burden of avoiding the abuse is on the abused. After all, if the person was a monster, why didn't the abused see that fact? Why did they get involved with a monster in the first place? This puts abuse survivors into a strange and difficult position. It can be very difficult to get out of an abuse situation, but it can be even harder when this notion exists that abusers are monsters and you don't think that the person hurting you is actually a monster. Even abusers have moments where they're charming or kind or gentle. Often it's part of the abuse cycle. Either way, calling the abusers monsters sends a message akin to "it should have been obvious. You shouldn't have stuck around."

Traditionally, monsters can't help being monsters--a vampire can't help the compulsion to drink blood, a werewolf can't help but change under the full moon, etc. By lumping abusers into the same category, I think that we risk the implication that the abuser was someone incapable of preventing the abuse. It removes the agency involved, in a way. Ultimately, if you abuse someone, you are responsible for that, and it's up to you to change that behavior, even if that means getting help.

In a way, this seems like arguing semantics, but I think that the results can be very real for people who are in abusive situations. It's already very hard for a lot of people to leave situations. Beyond the fear of the abuser, there are a lot of complicated feelings and fears that people have about how they will be viewed by their friends, families, and loved ones. There are people who won't believe that the abuser could have done the things that were done (which, I think, relates back to our idea that certain people are "monsters"; "how could anyone think that Pete would hit his partner? Pete isn't a monster!" Etc.), or who will look for things that the abused might have done "to cause the abuse." There's fear that people will look down on or pity the survivor for "letting the abuse happen." There are fears and feelings of betrayal at having lied to loved ones about the abuse.

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