Temptations and pitfalls of helping victims (victim-advocacy)
Christians, pastors, leaders, and bloggers sometimes talk about the evils of domestic abuse but use illustrations of abuse that are really extreme. For example: “What if a husband was kicking his wife’s teeth down her throat?” That kind of extreme illustration of domestic abuse may briefly arouse the concern of the average bystander who is inexperienced in domestic abuse, but it is of little help to victims. It paints a picture of what goes on in domestic abuse that is so extreme, so rare, that most victims will conclude “I’m not a victim because that isn’t how my partner treats me!”
When pastors and bloggers do that, I find it slightly self-aggrandizing. It comes across to me as if they are posing as experts who occupy the high moral ground but they really don’t understand enough about the issue. They may be more active on this issue than their listeners are, and I’m glad they are trying to raise awareness in others, but when they use extreme examples their message often seems to be tainted with self-promotion. And I find myself longing that they would read our blog and learn more about the issue by hearing from the many survivors we have here.
I myself have been aware of the temptation to galvanize my listeners — wake them up to the urgency of this issue — by using an extreme illustration or by giving a very long and involved description of a hypothetical abuse case. This temptation is most likely to come when I’m a bit frustrated with the ignorance or complacency of person I’m talking to, or when I’ve been triggered into emotions relating to (a) my personal experiences of domestic abuse, or (b) the way people have ignored, misrepresented or tried to shut down my work as an advocate for other survivors.
I want to look at this temptation-critter. How does it feel? What flavor does it have? What are its colors and stripes? My feelings when I’m tempted in this way — and they’re not pretty — are that I want to shock my listener and shame them for their complacency and ignorance. I want to so galvanize them that they will go home and think about what I’ve said for a week, and fall on their knees before God asking for repentance. I want them to tell the world . . . okay, this is getting really nitty gritty. . . I want my former church leaders to come to me with heart-felt apologies and ask me to forgive them for the way they handled my separation from my first husband. Aargh. Confession over. I hope.
I was prompted to write this post after I read Phil Monroe’s article Lies and stereotypes told by helpers that hurt the cause of trauma recovery. Phil is a colleague of Diane Langberg, whose work we’ve endorsed before on this blog (see here).
Phil sagely noted: “I think we all run the risk of getting life out of other’s pain. And yes, it doesn’t help when we only tell extreme stories and so, without meaning to, minimize the suffering of everyday violence.”
Thank you Phil. Getting life out of other’s pain. What a pithy expression.
Effectively involving men in preventing violence against women is an Issues Paper from the New Zealand Family Violence Clearinghouse. They say that when trying to motivate men to be more active in the the goal of reducing male abuse of women, it is most effective to aim for a balance between engendering discomfort and showing empathic support. That is, provoking the men to feel discomfort about the prevalence of male violence against women, whilst showing empathy with where men are at now — their level of (mis)understanding of the issue, the pressures on them to remain silent in the face of violence-supporting narratives, the cultural expectations and experiences they have in being men.
Biblically, shame has its place as a motivator, and I’m sure we could come up with verses illustrating how God and His prophets sometimes shamed people to galvanize them into repentance and activism for justice. However, I guess like anything else, shaming can be overused and be counter-productive. And when I’m tempted to shame people unduly or excessively, I have to tell that temptation critter to get off my shoulder, and find ways to strike the balance between discomfort and empathic support. And that balance, I think, can be modulated and tailored to different listeners, depending to what extent the listeners are wittingly or unwittingly enabling, condoning or colluding with abuse. And it’s not easy, but I try to improve.
Does any of this ring bells for others? Have you experienced anything similar?