Reconciling the Reality of Abuse with the Humanity of Abusers

Reconciling the Reality of Abuse with the Humanity of Abusers

This was originally published June 29, 2021

Many people struggle to reconcile a belief that every person deserves basic dignity with the reality that people do exist who have established and entrenched patterns of behavior where they derive benefit in some way from harming others.

I see no discrepancy between these two things, and I believe- no, I know- that being able to integrate these two realities is fundamental to creating a world that effectively responds to harm and abuse- both in that it supports individuals in shifting patterns of harmful behavior and supports them in the container of community over discarding and dehumanizing them.

We think that people who intentionally harm others are monsters. We act like we will know who they are by their villainous smirks, tapping their fingers together, radiating evil.

But people who do awful things are just people. They look and act like anyone else. We can’t tell if someone did or did not do something by how nice they were to us, by how well they tip the waiter on a date, by what a good comrade they are, by any of these things.

What we fail to see are two things:

Firstly, this behavior exists in all humans to varying degrees. No person on this earth is above harming someone else in their own self-interest, not one.

Some act out this behavior more than others, some to greater intensity and others to less, and there are a whole host of reasons why- but everyone does it.

The concern therefore is not about who enacts this behavior and who doesn’t- the concern is who recognizes this behavior in themselves and is making concerted efforts to choose differently.

And more than that, the concern is who has access to the support they need to confront these behaviors without becoming mired in shame.

Secondly, we live in a system that is based in hierarchy and competition over equality and cooperation. Making power plays, reading a room and maneuvering in a way that assures you’re going to survive in a system like this should be anticipated and expected, not demonized.

When we demonize and other this behavior, we are attempting to distance ourselves from it. We are not acknowledging that these behaviors have a root in something, and that something is both systemic and biologically shared among any being with a nervous system wired to ensure it’s survival- it is NOT an inherent marking of one’s character.

To integrate these understandings we need to get comfortable with the fact that we are just as capable of intentionally harmful behavior as anyone else.

We need to be able to relate to those who have patterns of harmful behavior as people we understand because we know what they are doing and why.

Not only does showing someone that you see clearly what they are doing disarm the behavior, it has potential to show them that they can see the behavior fully, clearly, and without shame themselves.

We do not support people in shifting the patterns of their behavior by telling them their behavior is proof that they are bad.

Reconciling the Reality of Abuse with the Humanity of Abusers

This was originally published June 29, 2021

Many people struggle to reconcile a belief that every person deserves basic dignity with the reality that people do exist who have established and entrenched patterns of behavior where they derive benefit in some way from harming others.

I see no discrepancy between these two things, and I believe- no, I know- that being able to integrate these two realities is fundamental to creating a world that effectively responds to harm and abuse- both in that it supports individuals in shifting patterns of harmful behavior and supports them in the container of community over discarding and dehumanizing them.

We think that people who intentionally harm others are monsters. We act like we will know who they are by their villainous smirks, tapping their fingers together, radiating evil.

But people who do awful things are just people. They look and act like anyone else. We can’t tell if someone did or did not do something by how nice they were to us, by how well they tip the waiter on a date, by what a good comrade they are, by any of these things.

What we fail to see are two things:

Firstly, this behavior exists in all humans to varying degrees. No person on this earth is above harming someone else in their own self-interest, not one.

Some act out this behavior more than others, some to greater intensity and others to less, and there are a whole host of reasons why- but everyone does it.

The concern therefore is not about who enacts this behavior and who doesn’t- the concern is who recognizes this behavior in themselves and is making concerted efforts to choose differently.

And more than that, the concern is who has access to the support they need to confront these behaviors without becoming mired in shame.

Secondly, we live in a system that is based in hierarchy and competition over equality and cooperation. Making power plays, reading a room and maneuvering in a way that assures you’re going to survive in a system like this should be anticipated and expected, not demonized.

When we demonize and other this behavior, we are attempting to distance ourselves from it. We are not acknowledging that these behaviors have a root in something, and that something is both systemic and biologically shared among any being with a nervous system wired to ensure it’s survival- it is NOT an inherent marking of one’s character.

To integrate these understandings we need to get comfortable with the fact that we are just as capable of intentionally harmful behavior as anyone else.

We need to be able to relate to those who have patterns of harmful behavior as people we understand because we know what they are doing and why.

Not only does showing someone that you see clearly what they are doing disarm the behavior, it has potential to show them that they can see the behavior fully, clearly, and without shame themselves.

We do not support people in shifting the patterns of their behavior by telling them their behavior is proof that they are bad.

We support people in shifting their behavior by showing them they are human, and that as a human they have power to make different choices.

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