Friday, November 09, 2012

spiritual abuse and emotional abuse--cycles of provocation and escalation

A properly Christian blog at some point simply must include a blog post that begins with a dictionary definition of a word, preferably from Merriam-Webster, in which a word gets defined and then becomes the basis for a rambling blog post. If possible the post should attempt to deal with a simultaneously vague and possibly tendentious idea that is full of rhetorical questions. 

Since it would be a terrible thing to make a mere observation and not also  provide an example in which one shows rather than tells, let's proceed.  Ahem ...


1:  a corrupt practice or custom
2:  improper or excessive use or treatment : misuse abuse
3 obsolete: a deceitful act : deception
4: language that condemns or vilifies usually unjustly, intemperately, and angrily
5: physical maltreatment

I've seen a few blogs pop up about spiritual abuse in the last few years. 

I confess to actually being ambivalent about them.  There are particular blogs I'm not the least bit ambivalent about which may be identified by dint of prodigious citation. I'm not discussing that sort of blog today.

Back to ambivalence, on the one hand genuinely destructive words and actions percolate and then explode in religious settings (as they do in other settings, obviously).  It is important that when remorseless harm or ill-will abounds (or even remorseful harm is bad enough) that it can get addressed. 

On the other hand I have wondered about the usefulness of a term like "spiritual abuse" for reasons I may have to explain at some length and with possibly dozens of caveats. 

The very definition of "spiritual abuse" may not be entirely clearcut and I say this not because I don't think it exists but because I have unbelieving friends; think about how and why we use certain words and what we mean by them; and think about how the nomenclature of spiritual abuse gets used.  Sometimes the term seems readily grasped by people who, depending on how people define abuse, get labeled as having a "victim mentality".  This often gets brought up by those who prefer that criticism or allegations of abuse not be endlessly discussed. 

This can lead to a variety of lazy shortcuts.  One of the lazier ones is to imagine that if so-and-so alleges that person X has been abusive and a person wants to differ, then that person can rhetorically or seriously ask so-and-so, "Did somebody hurt you?"  The assumption would be that if I speak up about things I consider damaging, deceptive, or harmful then you would be asking who hurt me because the only way to plausibly imagine that I would speak up about something is because I've got to have some personal hurt motivating my actions.  It may be a person is more likely to write about things they find upsetting if those things happened to them but it's not a given.

Another lazy shortcut in attempting to deploy "victim mentality" to dismiss some criticism is to define the victim mentality as a narrative a critic defines himself or herself by.  This actually does occur but the burden of proof doesn't lift from the person who alleges that the person making allegations must be operating from a victim mentality.  This might be a point at which a pious Christian might propose that "We're all sinners and none of us is perfect."  This is rarely intended as an affirmative defense of the rightness of the person who is alleged to have said or done wrong as often as it is an attempt to so level the moral playing field no one can be considered to speak from "higher ground" than the person who is coming under some criticism.  Everyone has a three-pound fallen brain and is a hypocrite when it's time to make sure nobody's critical comments get taken seriously.

What often happens at this point is to trade on various levels of infraction.  What people are apt to do is to presume that any harm done by someone they defend was unintentional while the harm caused by those who are on the opposite point meant every word and deed.  If the unconvincing defense from the 20th century in a post-World War II era was "I was only following orders" in the 20th century with an information age such as we've hardly seen before, the defense of unintended consequences or sincerity may be the cheapest defense.  Whatever the subject we are in a position to know better now than at almost any era previous to ours. 

But knowledge (and lack thereof) has not stopped being the crux of a lot of disputes.  As often as an allegation may come up, legitimate or otherwise someone will step in and say "we're not hearing the whole story" or "there are two sides to every story".  There's a proverb that has been mishandled by a few people toward this end.  Instead of taking this rather pedantic and useless line of argument a person would be better off pointing out that the heart is deceitful above all things and hard to understand.  This observation means that you and I are equally apt to deceive ourselves both about the rightness of our actions and the purity of our motives.  If we take this warning seriously we will be cautiouis first about our own actions and purity of motives and then wonder about others.  In blog-land the reverse is almost invariably more likely to be true. 

If someone wants to make a serious case against victims taking a bombastic and self-pitying approach to a topic or to cast doubt on the credibility of a "critic" then psychological research might be in order.  For instance,  while victims and their sympathizers may bristle at this psychological research and studies indicate that neither perpetrators nor victims will provide unbiased accounts.  As Roy Baumeister noted so thoroughly in his book on cruelty most perpetrators of evil actually see themselves as persecuted victims who used the best options at their disposal.  When people consider themselves victims they are apt to minimize their culpability for things but, more importantly, cast the other as evil in some fashion.  Contrary to the myth of pure evil about domestic violence, Baumeister said the forensic and psychological studies at hand suggest that domestic violence is often the result of mutually escalated psychological and physical aggression in up to half of the cases. 

The thing is that both perpetrators and victims are apt to cast each other as acting irrationally and against both good judgment and morals.  The trouble here with invoking a "victim mentality" to dismiss criticism is not that the criticism here of criticism has no merit but because it can so often be a double-edged sword.  Both the perpetrator and the victim will have an emotional incentive to cast themselves as the real victims in an event in which abuse is alleged.  Baumeister used the example of an abusive husband who beats his wife and convinces himself he had to do this in order to ensure his wife really respected him and his role as the man of the house.  In the abusive husband's mind he is actually the victim of what he would consider verbal or emotional abuse and he's found a way to use physical abuse to, in his mind, level the playing field.  How he has leveled the playing field, however,is physical abuse. 

Now for an atheist or an agnostic the very notion of "spiritual abuse" is something Christian bloggers ought to seriously consider, or even reconsider.  Does "spiritual abuse" even exist in a way that would make sense fot the unbeliever's mind?  Depending on which unbeliever you talk to the very notion of the religious mindset is fundamentally abusive by its nature and in its essence.  But a skeptic, a rationalist, an agnostic, an atheist will not concede that there is a "spirit" in the "spiritual abuse". 

Emotional abuse, by contrast, could be very easily granted and what Christian bloggers would call "spiritual abuse" can be considered emotional abuse that plays out at an interpersonal, even social level.  Yes, the term "cult" would also be a shoe that fits but not every shoe that fits is necessarily the same kind of shoe.  There are dress shoes for the office and tennis shoes for track and field and so on. Spiritual abuse may be emotional abuse that is played out with religious rationalizations.  It could be that from a therapeutic/counseling perspective spiritual abuse can be understood as a subset or specialization in emotional abuse. 

The tricky thing about emotional abuse is establishing that it has happened because physical forms of abuse leave marks that can be medically examined.  Emotional/relational abuse is not so easily discerned or diagnosed.  If you strike someone the physical effects can at least potentially be measured and studied but emotional abuse is harder to quantify either in terms of its nature or the extent of its damage.  For an unbeliever what Christians would call "spiritual abuse" is just the standard rank-and-file stupidity that any believers of any religion willing let others foist upon them by definition.  But let's propose for the time being that not all religious ideas and customs must by definition be abusive. 

Given how prevalent it is for an abuser to see himself or herself as actually the victim who must operate in self-defense in ways that someone else considers abusive, it isn't possible for a mere blogger to try to define emotional abuse.  It doesn't seem the professionals are entirely agreed on the matter and for earlier generations the very idea of emotional abuse, at least compared to physical abuse, may not only seem harder to quantify but may seem more than slightly dubious. 

Throwing this idea out for consideration, perhaps some folks need to consider that not all forms of abuse are necessarily physical.  A person can be in an abusive relationship without any physical harm being inflicted.  On the other hand, for those who very readily accept the idea of emotional abuse or spiritual abuse keep in mind that not all generations grew up hearing terms like emotional abuse.  It may not be of particularly old vintage even in the social sciences and there may not be a clear, agreed-upon definition as to what emotional abuse is.

I'm going on a limb to suggest that when people talk about emotional abuse or spiritual abuse in terms of cultures that the social element may have more impact for extraverts than introverts.  If a person is emotionally expressive and extraverted or introverted with a few deep associations then when those associations get sundered the emotional effect is catastrophic--yet the physical effects may be minimal. 

To get back to dictionary definitions, definition 4 defines abuse as language that condemns or villifies, usually unjustly.  Let's just play with "usually" and note that abuse may not seem unjustified in the mind of someone who uses abusive language.  They may think it's the fairest thing in the world to mock, belittle, and tear into whomever it was that the abuser is sure "had it coming". After all, this person didn't beat up anyone who didn't deserve it.  This person didn't make fun of anyone who didn't have it coming.  It is for an abuser a trivial thing to abuse ...  for the victim what Roy Baumeister called the "magnitude gap" between an abuser's view of an action and the victim's view of the action is collosal.  If we fail to appreciate that for an abuser the abuse is, however unpleasant, not all that bad and potentially even necessary then we will fail to grasp that abusers are human.  We "know" they are human, of course, but it's what we grant in the abstract not in the moment when our blood is boiling and we want them to die. 

But as I've already noted what often turns out to be the case is that abuse is fueled by a cycle of mutual aggression and provocation.  To use a useful archetypal example of a domestic conflict one person feels disrespected and belittled by the other.  The first person feels as though his/her partner is questioning his/her competence, status, intelligence, empathy or some other element.  The status of the person is found wanting in some fashion and in a setting where conflict may occur.  The second person feels let down, bitterly let down, perhaps stuck in a relationship where things aren't very good and speaks in a way that he/she considers a legitimate expression of frustration but that the first person takes as demeaning or distrusting in some way.  Words may get exchanged, things may escalate and at some point words transform into a physical, visceral reaction.  Or maybe not, maybe the words escalate to a point where as a sarcastic cartoon puts it, a husband and wife may be in an argument in which the wife says "Let's not go any further or we may say things we actually mean." 

I've seen people talk about abuse a bit on blogs I've frequented and I'm still ambivalent, as I said at the start.  There are people genuinely advocating on behalf of the abuse and genuinely expressing legitimate outrage at abuse.  There may be those for whom outrage about abuse may be a stance taken up on grounds other than that of bein gsubjected to direct abuse.  More disturbing, perhaps, is the possibility that even among those who speak up against abuse there are actually abusive ways of thinking, feeling and speaking dormant, or open, within them.  There is a fine and precarious line in satire, for instance, between making fun of the things you're making fun of and actually embodying those flaws yourself.  The more clever a satire is the more readily it may be confused for the real thing ... but at that point you want to be less and not more convincing if you value your own heart, at least that's how I see it.  An even more disturbing possibility is that you are able to effectively mimic the mockery and abuse of others it could be because those things are actually a part of who you are, not just the person you're objecting to. 

Now I have blogged a polemical point or two in my time here at Wenatchee The Hatchet and here I want to articulate a premise or principle I hope will be redundant for long-time readers and may be relevant to new ones.  I employ sarcasm and sometimes employ harsh ways of writing.  That is not, I think, the norm.  When I write a polemic I try hard to make a point of attacking ideas and methods of thinking rather than people.  Over time a person who employes specious reasoning, dishonest argumetns, or tells lies will at length reveal himself or herself to be less than trustworthy or perhaps trustworthy but of less than sterling character.  But this will be the man or woman or child revealing one's own character.  To speak in advance of that life testifying for itself risks judging someone too hastily and saying something dismissive or cruel or caustic or inaccurate about them.  In a word, an abusive word.  It is entirely possible to denounce abusive talk or judgmentalism in a way that itself displays all the same moral failures.  If you are belittle, mock or dismiss others then how are we not dehumanizing them in the way that abusers so often do?  The terrible paradox of emotional abuse, however we might define it, is that it may be a gift that keeps on giving and that it may itself be the preferred defense against what was considered abusive to begin with.  As can so often be the case the abuser sees himself or herself as the actual victim, a victim who was acting and speaking in self-defense and is not able to see himself or herself the way the subject does. 

We've rambled enough on that topic at this point.

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