Yesterday, the latest Domestic Abuse Bill finally passed through the UK Parliament. We’ve campaigned for it for at least the last 5 years and should celebrate despite it having been mauled by misogynist MPs and neutered by the destruction of the Legal Aid system. Clearly Law-making is only ever incremental.
At last, the emotional coercion as well as physical and economic abuse and coercion of adults who are or recently have been living together has been addressed in Law. Children in households where there is abuse between adult family members are, for the first time, recognised as suffering from the same abuse.
The formal recognition of emotional harm caused by abusive behaviours, for example slandering the victim as “crazy” or abusive (known as “gaslighting”), is a valuable addition to the long list of how individual humans can control another and render them powerless. This comes at a time when reports of domestic abuse have more than quadrupled during the COVID-19 Lockdown.
During the same period, the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder by Police of George Floyd in the USA has raised the level of debate about Power-and-Control behaviours, both personal and institutionalised. The knee pressed on the neck until dead is a graphic symbol of illegitimate power, and allows us now to extend our exploration of the more subtle behaviours that restrict or deny our ability to breathe.
At a tangent, the debate about a “Woman’s Right to Choose” and abortion rights continues unabated, with the notion that an individual has the right to be in charge of their own body (and nobody else’s) still ludicrously contentious. Add to that the very loud arguments about whether Transgender people have the right to be recognised as women if they so choose, dividing feminists and misogynists alike, and all issues of individual liberty and human rights remain far from resolved.
We live in ideologically-febrile times, but probably always have. The divisions in the vast array of potential “ways of seeing” across all of humanity have constantly led to camps, ideological groupings, sects, parties and conflict. The human imagination that has empowered us to conceive of ideas, constructions and actions that raise us to the top of the food chain comes at a high cost.
We are able to love and hate, build and destroy, care and ignore. To paraphrase Bob Dylan, we can hear without listening, see without understanding. We are all able to abuse. We therefore have to control and manage ourselves. We simply cannot be free to do what we want, any old time.
This raises questions, not only about the limits to potential freedoms and self-determination, but of human entitlement. In the context of person-to-person abuse, domestic abusers (the vast majority being men) consider themselves entitled to control and manipulate their intimate partner, if not their entire cohort of family and friends, by virtue of their maleness.
Having spent much of my lifetime employed as a statutory social worker intervening in cases of domestic abuse, I have some understanding of the dynamics of power-and-control relationships.
I have explored, through personal experience as well as academic study, the societal mechanisms by which the behaviours of the controller and the controlled develop, accelerate, become enmeshed, maintained and amplified. Belief systems are developed and embedded in order to explain away and normalise the abuse. Crucially, the abuser learns to feel entitled to behave in that way.
I’m in no doubt that all notions of entitlement stem from societal norms and cultural requirements, not innate “human nature”. We are socialised into basic expectations of “acceptable” behaviour, and any scan of different societies can identify the rainbow coloured span of legitimate ways of living. There is no one normal.
So people appear to choose to live under threat and in fear rather than defy the prescribed social norms. At societal level, millions can live under brutal dictatorships for decades, surviving in the shadows enjoying secret symbolic acts of defiance or illegitimacy. Drinking during Prohibition, reading banned books, daring to seek prohibited sexual encounters. Small acts that assuage the death-defying demand to challenge the entire system.
Unequal personal relationships often include similar token defiance. The oppressed and abused mouth-off behind the abusers back, but know to don the false-smile when together. And the pay-offs, usually summed-up by “better the devil you know…”, keep the relationship going. Such co-dependency is a prominent form of dysfunctional relationships, a dynamic that answers the throw away question of “why does s/he stay with him?” The more thoughtful question should be, “what are the barriers that prevent the victim from leaving?
We become locked into habits, familiarities and dependencies however destructive, for fear of the unknown. In this example, in a male-dominated society, a woman leaving her abuser runs the gauntlet of economic hardship as well as isolation and social stigma. The stereotype of the passive, caring and emotional woman is proven by the converse societal damnation of her assertive and challenging alter-ego.
Humans are so fabulously expansive in our potential conceptions and behaviours that we have to learn how to behave in any given society, and adapt to do so. Racism is learnt. Sexism is learnt. Homophobia is learnt. Religiosity is learnt. Good and Bad are social constructs. A deeply unequal and stratified society has to necessarily teach inequality and the righteousness of superior over inferior human beings.
Our base drives, complex in their minute-by-minute execution, come down to the comparatively simple inter-relationship of identity and survival. What I have to do to feel valid and what I have to do to be safe enough. Perception is key. And the “pay-off” – the value of holding on to what is rather than escape into the unknown – keeps us placed in the most extreme and absurd of situations.
If society teaches me that, as a man I have rights over women, or my lighter skin offers me power over people of colour, then I can feel comparatively valued and secure. At least I’m better off than them. “Tuppence ha’penny looking down at tuppence” as my Dad used to say. By this adage we all learn our place in the scheme of things. The abused may well believe that its right that s/he’s abused, because society says so, even if it seriously limits the ability to breathe.
It is Society that invokes our preferred attributes, including any and all human rights and entitlements. There is nothing essential or inalienable about any of them. I am given the “right” to control my partner only if those around me allow it. I can get away with enslaving others for my own benefit, on whatever contrived and spurious grounds, until I’m prevented from doing so. My judgements of “others’ as better or worse than me can only be validated by a society that condones hierarchy and competition.
Which brings us to the horrid quandary of the degree of societal change essential to prevent climate-driven human extinction. It is the class-laden layers of entitlements, seemingly bestowed upon the people of those societies most hectic in promoting global heating emissions, that ensure we maintain abusive behaviours towards the Environment as well as each other.
At a societal level, the most CO2-emitting North Western countries bestow the “Right” to fresh clean drinking water, electricity, housing and health care upon its citizens in return to gross exploitation and oppression. The least polluting peoples, seemingly because they’re the least economically developed, are not entitled to these comforts, even tho’ it is the natural resources within their national boundaries that overwhelmingly provide the entitlements for the better off. Western societies abuse the Global South for our own benefit and at their victims’ abject expense.
On a personal level, the size of diamond displays the validity of his love for me, whatever shackles it also portrays or exploitation it requires before display. My car bestows my status, never mind its CO2 rating and lung-damaging pollution; my employment secures my place in the scheme of things, even if being a qualified aircraft engineer (after 5 years of hard graft for which I deserve recompense and acknowledgement) contributes massively to environmental destruction; the home temperature from my central heating system ensures my comfort, whether the use of fossil fuels is sustainable or not.
It’s difficult to argue that we benefit from carbon-based economies when they are destroying the environment upon which we depend for survival. But how do we end the current individual and collective buy-in to ecological abuse? Society says and structures life to proclaim that I need a car (despite its cost) and makes life harder without one. How can I be strong enough to walk away?
To lower emissions by the mind-boggling scale required to prevent societal breakdown and ecological Armageddon, we have to address and change all current notions of Human Entitlement. If we can challenge entitlements in relation to domestic abuse or white supremacy, why can’t we do the same to prevent environmental abuse?
We don’t need to exert power in order to feel safe and warm in an intimate relationship. Negotiation, empathy and sensitivity offer a far deeper, more enjoyable and rewarding partnership. Children who grow-up appreciating the value, including the true cost, of things tend to have a broader and more cooperative relationship towards everything and everyone around them. Perhaps we don’t need central heating after all.
Environmental destruction is the most powerful of all abuse because it impacts negatively upon all Life. Can an abuser change perception and behaviour? I can authoritatively say “yes” because I’ve seen it happen so many times. Individuals can and do learn, adapt and change. We can learn not to abuse.
By the same token, “survivors” are, by definition, the people who have stood up and walked away from the abuse. The most over-stated cry of the support worker is, “if he’s hit you, he’ll do it again and next time it’ll be worse still. You can’t change him, its time to leave.” The walk into the unknown may be frightening but generally not nearly as fearful as the day-to-day tremble of the abusive home environment.
Yet, through the past five decades the proportion of domestic abuse households hasn’t changed, no matter how many individuals have passed through therapeutic intervention to learn better behaviours. Hence yet another Law. It is clear from history that outlawing domestic abuse will not work unless male dominance as a norm is systemically challenged and unlearnt.
Whilst stemming from different root causes, the same goes for constructs of white supremacy, and indeed for acceptance of global heating emissions. Such abuse should not just be frowned upon, but decried, exposed and constantly challenged, as well as prohibited. But right now, those refusing to comply with the abuse, facing-up to the abusers, challenging and changing behaviours, are still derided and stigmatised by a society defending its’ entitlements.
Can humanity stop abusing the environment? The analogy with domestic abuse suggests not fast enough if left to the slow-burn of one-by-one learning. While one person has unlearnt the abusive behaviours another has just started to enact what society has taught. The bright red Emergency Stop button controlling the conveyor belt has to be pressed, hard.
Ending environmental abuse requires societal change. It probably does mean a period of discomfort whilst building a new normal. It will require strong laws against the abusers – in this case the Corporations who are currently protected in their psychopathy. And, as with the misogynist abusers, they’re likely to fight back against any and all personal liability or accountability.
Progress depends upon the joined-up force of all movements against abuse. At base, the societal conventions that legitimise exploitation and oppression sit alongside the tenets that allow ecological destruction. At all levels of society we must pursue demands for equality not supremacy, cooperation not competition, the prioritisation of sustenance over accumulation, sharing not owning, sufficiency over avarice. But mostly, the end of any provision of entitlement without responsibility.