Abuse and the Language of Privilege

Trigger Warning: In this post, I am going to be talking about emotional and psychological abuse. Rarely do I write about things that I believe require a trigger warning, and I do not intend to write about this topic in a way that is graphic or disturbing. But I wanted to let you know. Not because I want you to avoid reading this post altogether, but because I want you to feel safe and respected in this space, and I want you to know that I believe in your strength and courage in having this conversation. If at any point you find that you need to step away, I want you to know that I will understand and I will be here waiting for you and ready to listen, whenever you’re ready.


Snow Clings to Wildflower II

What I want to talk about in this post is not privilege per se, but the way that the language of privilege is used in certain kinds of conversations. The topic of privilege is a complex one, and Daniel Grey shares some excelent insight into this in a comment on Teo Bishop’s recent post, “Privilege: The Other ‘P’ Word“:

“Privilege” is not a bad word. It should not be understood to mean stupid, bad, or worthless. Privilege /does/ mean that we act sometimes with blinders on because we are not capable of seeing what others in a lesser position go through. Or rather, it takes a /concentrated effort/ to change our naturally acquired ways of thinking and processing the world around us and /purposefully choosing/ to acknowledge our privilege. I tweeted to you that struggling with privilege is good for us; but more importantly, I believe we should do it /for each other/. We live in a society which privileges some and oppresses others. We live in a society which is unjust, unfair, and sometimes quite cruel. I want to live in a better society, and it’s not going to change overnight. It’s going to change with /my words/, my actions, my beliefs, my willingness to struggle with the supremely difficult questions…

What Danny is describing here is an essential aspect of the human condition: we are inherently limited beings, because that is the nature of physical embodiment, and our knowledge reflects those limitations because it is conditioned by our own experiences and our perspective as physical, embodied beings. This has always been true, and the language of privilege is just the latest way that we have of articulating this fact. We can work to overcome the limitations of our knowledge through conversation with each other, and through imaginative empathy with those who have different experiences and different perspectives. But even these efforts will only take us so far. We will never reach a place where we can know, understand and speak for All People. Our first misstep is to think that such a thing is even possible. While I admire Danny’s optimism for a world where the marginalized and the vulnerable do not bear the weight of cruelty and injustice, I also know that justice is not the same thing as flawless understanding. We will never live in a world where our differences don’t matter. To be matter, to be physical beings living in a messy-crazy-beautiful physical world, is to be different, to be unique, to be individual. Sometimes that means being misunderstood, or feeling alone, but on the whole, our individuality is a good thing. And it gives us an opportunity for conversation.

So while the language of privilege is important in learning to acknowledge and talk about how our limitations can sometimes lead us, even inadvertently, to participate in and perpetuate injustice — even the language of privilege has its limitations. We cannot, simply by talking about it, expunge or diminish our differences or the differences of others. If that is our goal when we use the language of privilege, we have already made that first misstep.

What does all of this have to do with abuse?

When I was in college, I met a girl (let’s call her Sally, though that isn’t her real name) who had suffered for years from psychological abuse at the hands of her mother. It is a stereotype in our culture that the relationship between a mother and a teenage daughter is always bound to be strained, and that teenagers are generally rebellious, reckless and rude. For that reason, it’s often hard to recognize when a relationship crosses the line from normal, healthy conflict into abuse. Sally’s family didn’t recognize the abuse for what it was, and their silence seemed to her to legitimize it. Like many people in situations of domestic abuse, for a long time Sally believed that she was the problem, that if only she could be a better daughter, if only she was better at self-control and self-censorship, then things would be okay.

Sally’s relationship with her mother cycled through the typical stages of domestic abuse: building tension, incident, reconciliation, calm and rising tension once again. During the first phase, tension would build in the household as Sally’s mother made casual insults mocking her intelligence, insinuating that her friends were losers who didn’t really like her, and suggesting that she would be incapable of handling life on her own if she ever moved out. Eventually, the tension would build to a breaking point, either because Sally would push back against her mother’s passive aggressive behavior or because she would seek to escape it by avoiding her entirely, sometimes running away to a friend’s house. Sally’s mother would fly into a rage at these acts of perceived disrespect, threatening to kick Sally out of the house permanently, sometimes threatening to call Sally’s teachers or the parents of her friends to “let them know what a bitch” Sally was (in other words, threatening to sabotage her support system). Sometimes, her mother would become so angry that she would slap, hit or scratch Sally. There were times when she even threatened to take Sally to a psychiatrist and have her put on medication because she was “so out of control,” trying to shame Sally with the stigma of being “crazy.” (In college, Sally began going voluntarily to the college’s free counseling service. When her mother used to threaten her with therapy in high school, she would ask for all of them to go, as a family, so that they could work things out. But they never did. The free counseling service provided by the college was the first time Sally was able to seek out therapy for herself, without having to rely on her parents to pay for it, and without the fear that therapy would be used as a weapon to stigmatize and/or drug her.)

Many of these outbursts ended with Sally’s mother in tears, berating Sally for being such a difficult daughter and causing these horrible fights. If Sally pleaded with her mother to stop screaming at her or to calm down so they could talk things out, her mother would accuse Sally of “trying to control her feelings.” She would insist that she had a right to her rage and would declare proudly that she refused to be bullied into silence just because everyone wanted her to “shut up and be nice.”

The familiar refrain of the abuser is, “Why do you make me so angry that I hurt you?” In Sally’s case, the pain was emotional and psychological, and her mother justified the pain she caused to Sally by claiming a right to express her emotions however she wished, no matter how it might affect others or who it might hurt.

Kindness is not a form of oppression.

In his post, Teo wrote:

Encouraging anyone, especially people whose lives I don’t really understand, to be anything other than what they’re already being, even if what I’m encouraging is a little more kindness and compassion, places me in a strange position of authority.

When I read that, I thought of Sally.

Sally was not in a position of authority or power over her mother. Sally’s pleas for kindness were not, as her mother claimed, an attempt to “control” her mother’s feelings. They were Sally’s way of expressing her own vulnerability and pain, of asking for the kindness and respect that could keep the situation from escalating and preserve some possibility of real reconciliation.

What I learned from Sally was this:

Do not let anyone tell you that asking them for kindness and respect is a form of oppression.

Do not let anyone convince you that how they choose to act on their anger is your responsibility.

Many of us know what it’s like to have our words ignored or our perspectives marginalized because we didn’t use the right “tone.” We get angry, often for perfectly good reasons, we use harsh language, and then suddenly our use of the word “fuck” is all anyone can talk about and it’s an excuse to ignore whatever point we were actually trying to make.

As just one example: I remember an extended conversation I had on Facebook a while back when, after a day and a half of carefully outlining my arguments, I finally lost my temper and responded somewhat flippantly with a “what the fuck?” — at which point, the person who was arguing with me took it upon himself to tell me that “maybe the reason nobody takes you seriously is because you use words like ‘fuck’ instead of talking like a mature adult.” Fuck him, I thought. I’m not a fucking child who needs a lesson in using my “indoor voice.” But I didn’t write that. Instead, I pointed out to him the hundreds of words I’d already spent trying to “talk maturely” with him, admitted that I had spoken out of frustration, and then followed up with a linguistic analysis of how the word “fuck” can intentionally be used to undermine the social norms established within a given conversation. When someone speaks to me like a child, I double-down on being a mature, intelligent adult (because you know what? fuck them).

But what I did not do was blame him for how I’d chosen to express my anger. I owned my anger, and I owned my expression of that anger. It is my outrage, and no one can take that away from me.

But because I own my anger, and my expression of that anger, I also take responsibility for it. If I have the power to act on my anger, then I have to acknowledge that I also have the power to cause harm to others. I doubt that my use of the word “fuck” was really traumatizing or hurtful to this person on Facebook. But you know what? I don’t get to decide that. If I want to be in conversation with people, and if I want them to listen to me, I have to be willing to listen to them. Even if I think they’re full of shit. I remember Sally, and how she felt when no one would listen to her when she tried to explain to them that her mother was abusive. Sally wasn’t always a very easy person to get along with, and she could be kind of a bitch. She’d had some pretty shitty examples of how to handle conflict growing up, and so she did a pretty lousy job of handling conflict in her turn. But none of that meant that the pain and abuse that she experienced wasn’t real, or that she somehow deserved it. When I think of Sally, I remember what it was like for her to be in a perceived position of privilege in which abuse was masked by stereotypes about how obnoxious and ungrateful suburban teenagers always are. So I make a choice:

I don’t want to live in a world where we are no longer allowed to ask each other for kindness and respect. I don’t want to live in a world where one person’s anger is more important than another person’s pain. I don’t want to live in a world where our only recourse if we want to be heard is to raise our voices more and more loudly and force our anger onto others.

I would rather learn how to turn my anger into something beautiful and powerful that cannot be ignored, than to waste it in ways that can be dismissed because of my “tone.” I would rather turn my rage into an agent of compassion, than use it as a weapon against those who have hurt me.

Which means that hell yes, I pull my punches. When someone cries uncle, I ease up. Even if I think they’re faking it. I don’t drop my guard, and I don’t let myself get distracted, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to put myself in the position of bully or brute. When I choose to acknowledge and respect other people’s expressions of pain and vulnerability, I show my strength and I set an example of how to be strong in a way that doesn’t require others to be weak. This isn’t about asserting my privilege — it’s about discovering my sovereignty as someone who can be strong, kind and compassionate even when I am on the receiving end of bullying and injustice.

I don’t know what it was about Teo’s post asking us to “be nice” to each other that sparked accusations of privilege. I do know that one lone blogger crying out in the wilderness of the internet asking us to be decent to each other is a far cry from any form of active oppression. And I believe him when he says that he didn’t see encouraging kindness as an exercise of privilege, and that he wasn’t seeking to strengthen one side of the debate by silencing the other. But I also think he is mistaken if the lesson he learned was that it’s not okay to ask people to be kinder to one another. (I think it’s much more likely that the “privilege” he was accused of had more to do with the size of his readership than the content of his post.)

Kindness, compassion and respect are indispensable to conversations about privilege. If we want to listen deeply to others, appreciate their unique perspectives and experiences, and feel that our own perspectives are being heard, we all need to hold kindness, compassion and respect as vital.

We will never live in a world without limitations and differences. If we want to live in a world that is fair and just despite those limitations and differences, we need to understand how real conversation and reconciliation are built upon values like kindness and respect. We need to believe in our own sovereignty and strength, even — no, especially — when others try to deny it or take it away. We need to own our anger and take responsibility for how we express it. We need to embrace our power instead of giving it away to those who would demean or dehumanize us. Because you know what? If every time we see a person asking for kindness and respect, we accuse that person of “privilege,” then we risk relinquishing our claim to the greatest assets we have in our work towards justice and equality.

Respect and kindness are not luxuries that only the privileged can afford. They are the very things that make us human and that connect us in community.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

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