B – What is abuse?

I feel it’s a bit risky or, indeed perhaps, foolhardy to talk about abuse directly as it is such an emotionally loaded term and one might so easily end up saying something that others might see as glib, or as inappropriately coldly analytical, or as abusive in itself or as appearing to condone something wrong or unpleasant in some hitherto unperceived way on one’s own part. But, I have felt myself using the term too glibly in conversation at times, even rather facilely in seeking to take the moral high ground in a debate. Some part of me has, in those moments, wondered if I was bringing the term too easily into play and wondered if I had thought about the term in itself adequately, in advance of using it a bit too readily here and a bit too readily there perhaps.

Well, to start by playing it a bit safe, let’s be somewhat linguistic. The noun abuse (for the act, the entity) relates, of course, to the verb abuse (for the active delivery of abuse). Both derive from Latin and are made up of the affix ab and the stem usus or uti. The latter mean ‘use’ and ab generally means ‘from’ or, more exactly, ‘away from’; so, abuse is related to use but, in some way, it is ‘away from use’. In this vein, my favourite dictionary defines abuse, quite simply, as ‘wrong use’, clearly seeing abuse as related to use but as a use that is wrong and, one can guess, fundamentally morally wrong. The term indicates a moral judgement on a use. But, what is use and what are the possible relationships between use and feeling?

Use and feelings

In the concrete world, say the world of a carpenter, he has tools that he uses: hammer, chisel, gimlet, saw, plane, sander etc, etc. His use of those tools has no potential moral angle within European and European-sourced cultures of, say, the last few/two millennia. They, the tools, have no animate existence in themselves within those cultures; they have nothing in themselves as entities that can be wrongly used in a moral way. Of course, one might say of this particular carpenter that he uses his tools so brutally and with such little care that he abuses them. But here the complaint is against the user for his waste and wantonness, there is no necessary or particular feeling for the tools themselves.

If the carpenter uses the tools of his carpenter friend and abuses these before he returns them, then there is a moral issue, or at least an economic angle with moral consequences, in that his friend finds his tools have been rendered useless – his generosity has been disrespected and he is going to have to buy new ones. So, we have shifted from the world of inanimate things to animate people where the potentiality for abuse resonates significantly.

What about the world of animals? If they have feelings, then they are abusable. But, is it then safe to say that if they don’t appear to have feelings then they can be readily abused because they feel nothing? Surely not. With mammals, it is easier because we can readily sense that mammals have feelings. Dogs clearly do and so do cattle, for example; cattle treated brutally show a tendency to become brutalised and obstreperous, like humans. But, what about birds? Do they generally have feelings? Can we know for sure? And even if they don’t, it is surely morally wrong to abuse them just because we believe they have no feelings. But, if we buy a battery chicken or battery eggs, we are either assuming or deciding that the birds have no feelings and therefore we needn’t feel care but enjoy the savings despite the poor quality of the products healthwise. Or, we could decide that they may have feelings but we don’t care because we need the savings that the poor quality of their lives gives to us … sounds like a deliberate act of abuse?

What about the Earth? In current, mainstream so-called Western and Western-style cultures at least, the planet we live on is not invested readily in itself with having a consciousness or feelings. So, when we talk about environmental sustainability in our use of the Earth’s resources, are we talking about just our survival and our children’s children’s survival? Or, are we actually seeing the Earth as something given to us to protect and nurture, something precious that should be protected from abusive use just because of what … because of its incredible magnificence and beauty, which we should not damage further? If we were to radically mend our ways and make our use of its resources entirely sustainable for the Earth and return areas to virgin forest ,and to not lose another species from the planet and not lose the Arctic ice-cap, we could feel virtuous and responsible. But, what if a group of alien invaders came along with far superior technology of war to ours and took over the planet and shipped all of humanity out to near Saturn in a vast prison spaceship, would we feel we had not acted sensibly? Would we regret not using the Earth more rapaciously so that we could have concentrated more on ever more powerful weapons of war? Would we regret our careful use and stewardship of the world only to see all that beauty and resource and all our hard work and thought and care passed to the invader?

In the world of socio-professional interaction – and I use that world, as so much nowadays shows a blurring between the social and the professional – things can seem cosier and more generally comfortable but many of the same issues would seem to apply. Here the minutiae of daily interaction can seem vastly more significant to us than the bigger things that maybe should concern us more. In this world, we are dealing with entities, ourself and others, that have an animate existence. The key thing that contributes to something being seen as animate is not just breath and life but also the sense of feelings and emotions being at play. So, let’s say we are operating in the socio-professional world – more than likely. Are we happy? Yes? Great. Are we not happy? Yes? Well, in a way, great too! Often, I would guess, we can feel happy and sad – all at one and the same time.

In any one moment, we can usually think of things that are making us feel good: someone we hardly know smiled at us in the office this morning, or we might have phoned someone yesterday and had a warm and friendly talk.

In the same moment, there can be things that are making us feel less than happy: we’ve been overlooked for promotion at work, we’ve got to write a report on a project we’ve been working on but don’t feel confident that we really know how to write a good report, sales aren’t looking as good last month as previously projected, and so on …

Interestingly, on occasion, we can find that something that we expect to make us happy doesn’t actually make us quite as happy as we expected – there is a lingering feeling of dissatisfaction around somewhere or, even perhaps, absolute despair in the most extreme cases. We can also find that something that we expect to make us unhappy doesn’t actually make us as unhappy as we might have expected and, in fact, we feel in some way happier than we would have expected.

And, indeed, it’s good sometimes, though difficult, to look behind the sources of our happiness and see if we’re right to think they should make us happy. We might have done a good job in our work for someone and they like us for it and praise us, and this makes us happy. However, if we look more deeply into the situation, we may feel that that person is maybe cheating us a little – maybe he or she is taking our work, our ideas, our creativity and presenting them to the world as theirs. We are getting some approbation from that person, say our manager or supervisor, but are they getting the world’s approbation? Are they using us more than we would like? Are we so happy now?

The cline from use to abuse

In this last example where person A feels that person B is getting the credit for person A’s work (and how often do we hear that complaint?), has use slipped into abuse? Almost certainly. But, what if A doesn’t notice the fact they are allowing B to get the credit for their work, or what if they don’t care? Maybe, A is so grateful to have the job he is doing and/or so grateful to B for giving him the job in the first place that he accepts that not being given credit for his work as a slight thorn in his flesh but not enough of one to cancel his joy in having the work in the first place. Is a feeling of abuse only determined by the possibly abused having feelings about possibly being ab-used? Is abuse vitiated where feelings are not involved? Can a mutuality of use, often at play between individuals or between individuals and organisations and which is mutually beneficial but in different ways, render things non-abusive? I think it can if both parties feel they are receiving equal benefit from the shared use of each other’s capacities and potentials and if both have freely entered into their sharing through their own choice. Unequal benefit may be completely unabusive for both if, once again, if both have freely entered into their unequal sharing through their own choice. Or maybe, they have agreed explicitly or implicitly that, in some future co-project, the relative proportions of benefit will be the other way around entirely. Or maybe, the relative giver of benefit does not care about their level of benefit in this case at all. They don’t feel diminished in this case by being the larger giver.

Turning things around, does a feeling of abuse necessarily indicate that abuse is occurring? Let’s say person A walks into his office block, his workplace, one day and feels a sense of sadness that for the next eight hours he is renting out his brain for the use of the organisation he works for, maybe he is also renting out his facebook profile for their use; his brain will not be his own for this time, it will be there for the organisation’s use. Is he right in feeling abused by the organisation? Maybe so, maybe not. In a way, not, as he presumably entered into a contract with the organisation at the start of his employment which said implicitly at least that for eight hours per working day, his mental functions would be theirs to use for their motives. Ah, but what were their motives? Did they make these clear at the start? Did they say their motives were to be a force for good in the world or to make a profit or did they imply there was a certain natural synergy between the two? Has A started to feel that the organisation’s motives feel more profit-focused than he was expecting and that, when the organisation needs him to make a choice between their being a force for good or maximising profit, it subtly nudges him towards the latter at the expense of the former? If yes, and that does not fit with his mores, then he is not being abused exactly but can know he is in the wrong job and believe there must be other alternatives. Ah, but he has dependents and this job is what he knows how to do. Rental and house prices are so high, in tandem with the generally closed and proprietary nature of the money system, child-care so expensive, he has to stay in what he is doing because, though he does not believe in its value, he has responsibilities. Has society then abused him? Maybe it has in that it has set up a structure, an economic structure, where he finds he cannot be true to his own principles wholly but only in part. In a sense, he has to be not just abusive but, by extension, self-abusing in his role of work.

Abuse as a sociocultural entity

Let’s say person A has a friend in his office, person C. C is a fitness and self-development fanatic. Every day after work, she goes to the gym to work out and, twice a week, she goes to see a life counsellor and, once a week, she talks with her therapist. Busy life! Has the sociocultural pressure for self-improvement, physical and mental, been so powerfully felt in her case that she cannot help herself from these pursuits and from following them in an ardent way? Maybe so, maybe not. We come back to feelings. Maybe these pursuits do result in a genuine increase in her sense of well-being and happiness. But, maybe in actual fact, she feels under huge pressure in the whole process and hates all of it but also hates herself when she is not trying to self-improve. Has the craze for self-improvement within the zeitgeist, in part perhaps driven by a financial profit motive – as much as anything else – on the part of the various suppliers, trapped C in a kind of hell? Ah, but maybe she can get some SITT (Self-Improvement Trauma Therapy … I jest … hollowly). But how much will that cost? In short, sociocultural trends can be a drive towards self-inflicted abuse.

To go back in time, the generally bright, self-confident women of the novelist Jane Austen’s world were living in a sociocultural framework where they had no property rights and no political vote that might enable them to rectify their lack of rights. Their chance of sustained happiness could readily seem to be in finding a rich and available man, preferably handsome and preferably not a complete bastard, to marry. Maybe, many of these women accepted their world as it was and made the best of it and were happy enough. But maybe, even in that scenario, they were the victims of a socioculturally accepted set of norms, just like the slaves their men may have made their fortunes out of. The situations these ladies may have found themselves in were entirely legal, in the sense of being in line with the law, but were they actually abusive? Was the sociocultural framework they found themselves in actually abusive?

To say ‘yes’ would mean that we would need to have access to another frame of reference. That frame of reference could be every individual’s inalienable rights. Are inalienable rights something absolute or are they relative to the sociocultural norms of any given time or place?

The essential dynamic of abuse

I would say that inalienable rights are an absolute reality and are not relative to the sociocultural norms of any given time or place. Basically, these rights, for want of a better term perhaps, are a selection of issues relating to fairness and care. Where fairness and care collapses, then abuse occurs. The level of abuse depends on how much fairness and care – and, actually, fairness is a subset of care – have collapsed on the part of the abusing. The in-the-background slaves, labouring in the plantations of their European masters, and the women of Jane Austen’s world were both deprived of inalienable rights.

A friend said to me once that all abuse was psychological. What I understood her to mean by this is that physical abuse and psychological abuse have ultimately the same over-riding result: psychological damage. If the abuse happens at an age or in a way that we are not consciously aware of, it still has an unconscious damage on us.

So, in seeking to define abuse, I have ended up at the point of seeing it as the delivery of psychological damage to another prompted, in part, by a deficit of care for the ‘other’. I said “in part” there because abuse can also be prompted by a warped sense of care for the self on the part of the abuser. By delivering abuse, they can see themselves addressing, getting their own back, for their own sense of the damage they have previously received. What we are touching on here is the dread and awful world of revenge. The revenge may be targeted at the perpetrator of the original abuse but also, and probably more often, may be delivered through the innocent, through the abuse of them.

But, what is care – care of the unwarped sort?

David Lott

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