Humanizing Harm

Originally Published February 10, 2021

While “abusers” are very much real, being an abuser is not an immutable quality. It is not something that is irredeemable or impossible to transform. It simply describes a person with an established pattern of behavior rooted in using their capacity for empathy (their ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, distinct from “compassion”) for personal gain in some fashion.

Some abusers use these tools in more sinister ways- such as getting pleasure out of creating distress for another (and I don’t mean in a safe and consensual context). Others may be using these tools because they believe they are necessary for advancing themselves in the world, and still others may treat them as strategies for getting needs met.

If you hold any consciousness around the way that capitalism functions it’s not hard to see how this kind of environment creates prime conditions for allowing such behavior to flourish.

Near every person on this planet has used these tools to some extent. Even sadism is a universal quality, such as schadenfreude. Admitting to this in ourselves and allowing ourselves to see this clearly in others is absolutely crucial if we wish to create safety in our lives and communities.

Seeing this clearly in ourselves and others does not mean we have to shame ourselves in the process. In fact being able to sit with these realities with a degree of acceptance and understanding (not of the abuse, but of the person) is how we create space for people to step into personal responsibility.

(An important note: please understand that I don’t believe this is the responsibility of a victim to hold space for this, and I am speaking as a person who one day hopes to work professionally with abusers in rehabilitation)

Part of this effort is to stop denying the humanity of abusers- of people who have an established pattern of abuse, manipulation, and control, and to start looking at abusers as whole human beings.

The most common understandings of abusers (as I’ve observed) tend to go a couple ways. On the one hand there are those who see abusers as evil, as monsters who are beyond redemption. On the other hand there are those who may tend towards downplaying or outright denying that abusers are real- possibly in reaction to the way that the former have dehumanized them. Frequently, people hold both of these beliefs at the same time. Rather than holding a holistic view of humans, we other and demonize some and the cognitive dissonance around witnessing people we care about enact similar behaviors causes us to create certain rules that exempt them from the same standards.

However we can create synthesis from these tendencies, and in fact we need to do this in order to effectively intervene in abuse.

We need to honestly recognize the depths to which violent human behavior goes. We need to be able to see it in ourselves and others. We also need to address the way we treat these behaviors as something worthy of dehumanizing people over.

This is the ultimate shadow work- getting comfortable with discomfort, getting comfortable with disgust, even. Getting comfortable with the fact that real, actual human beings do terrible things. Getting comfortable with finding our center and our integrity in the midst of it.

Holding space for all of this at the same time we hold to a commitment not to dehumanize others or regard them as incapable of growth, or deserving of our cruelty.

These aren’t just my philosophical musings either- they are ideas based in interpersonal neurobiology.

A question I’ve asked myself as I’ve begun to unpack the way I approach this work is this:

Am I invested in fulfilling my wish for catharsis and punishment? Or am I invested in actually ending the conditions that allowed what happened to me to happen?

While “abusers” are very much real, being an abuser is not an immutable quality. It is not something that is irredeemable or impossible to transform. It simply describes a person with an established pattern of behavior rooted in using their capacity for empathy (their ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others, distinct from “compassion”) for personal gain in some fashion.

Some abusers use these tools in more sinister ways- such as getting pleasure out of creating distress for another (and I don’t mean in a safe and consensual context). Others may be using these tools because they believe they are necessary for advancing themselves in the world, and still others may treat them as strategies for getting needs met.

If you hold any consciousness around the way that capitalism functions it’s not hard to see how this kind of environment creates prime conditions for allowing such behavior to flourish.

Near every person on this planet has used these tools to some extent. Even sadism is a universal quality, such as schadenfreude. Admitting to this in ourselves and allowing ourselves to see this clearly in others is absolutely crucial if we wish to create safety in our lives and communities.

Seeing this clearly in ourselves and others does not mean we have to shame ourselves in the process. In fact being able to sit with these realities with a degree of acceptance and understanding (not of the abuse, but of the person) is how we create space for people to step into personal responsibility.

(An important note: please understand that I don’t believe this is the responsibility of a victim to hold space for this, and I am speaking as a person who one day hopes to work professionally with abusers in rehabilitation)

Part of this effort is to stop denying the humanity of abusers- of people who have an established pattern of abuse, manipulation, and control, and to start looking at abusers as whole human beings.

The most common understandings of abusers (as I’ve observed) tend to go a couple ways. On the one hand there are those who see abusers as evil, as monsters who are beyond redemption. On the other hand there are those who may tend towards downplaying or outright denying that abusers are real- possibly in reaction to the way that the former have dehumanized them. Frequently, people hold both of these beliefs at the same time. Rather than holding a holistic view of humans, we other and demonize some and the cognitive dissonance around witnessing people we care about enact similar behaviors causes us to create certain rules that exempt them from the same standards.

However we can create synthesis from these tendencies, and in fact we need to do this in order to effectively intervene in abuse.

We need to honestly recognize the depths to which violent human behavior goes. We need to be able to see it in ourselves and others. We also need to address the way we treat these behaviors as something worthy of dehumanizing people over.

This is the ultimate shadow work- getting comfortable with discomfort, getting comfortable with disgust, even. Getting comfortable with the fact that real, actual human beings do terrible things. Getting comfortable with finding our center and our integrity in the midst of it.

Holding space for all of this at the same time we hold to a commitment not to dehumanize others or regard them as incapable of growth, or deserving of our cruelty.

These aren’t just my philosophical musings either- they are ideas based in interpersonal neurobiology.

A question I’ve asked myself as I’ve begun to unpack the way I approach this work is this:

Am I invested in fulfilling my wish for catharsis and punishment?

Or am I invested in actually ending the conditions that allowed what happened to me to happen?

Because if I’m truly invested in the latter I need to be backing my actions in research over my reactions rooted in trauma.

Because if I’m truly invested in the latter I need to be backing my actions in research over my reactions rooted in trauma.

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