Welcome to the third post in my four-part series on Four Operations of Language. In this post I will be focusing on concealing victims’ resistance.
I’ve written about victims’ resistance previously, and this post will likely not be the last on this subject. It’s a topic of great interest to me, and a constant source of inspiration in my work as a counsellor. However, for the purpose of this post, I’ll be discussing how people use language to conceal the ways in which victims resist.
By their very nature, violence and abuse are inherently interactional. Although we often focus on the person doing the violence, it is just as important to acknowledge how victims respond. Victims’ responses are as much a part of a violent interaction as the perpetrator’s actions. Unfortunately this principle is rarely acknowledged.
In my previous post on resistance, I define it as any action geared toward minimizing one’s exposure to, or surviving an adverse experience. As a therapist informed by Response-Based Practice, I believe that whenever people experience things that compromise their safety (physically, socially, emotionally, or otherwise), they resist. This can be through more overt, outwardly observable actions, or through more subtle, private responses – such as a thought or emotion. I do not believe that any one act of resistance is “better” than another, and people generally employ situational logic when it comes to the manner in which they resist in a given social context.
Why Conceal Resistance?
Perpetrators of violence and abuse have a stake in making it look as though their actions were not violent or abusive. It allows them to avoid accountability, potential repercussions, and negative responses from their communities. By concealing victims’ resistance, they make it more likely that they can position their victims as willing participants in their violence or abuse.
Offenders aren't the only ones who conceal victims' resistance through language. It's also common for the media and helping professionals to talk about violence and abuse in ways that conceal or fail to acknowledge resistance. Most instances in which professionals conceal resistance are the result of careless uses of language to describe victims’ responses. The field of psychotherapy also has an extensive history of theories that position victims as psychologically deficient, misrepresenting their responses to adversity as “effects” or “symptoms”, when they may be better understood as responsive acts of resistance.
Concealing Victims’ Resistance
If victims’ responses to violence are as important and relevant to the situation as the acts of violence themselves, the simplest and most obvious way to conceal victims’ resistance is to leave it out of the description of the interaction altogether. We see this all the time. In fact, in my experience, it’s rare for people or media to include how victims respond and resist when describing acts of violence. From my perspective, any description that does not include an account of how the victim responded and resisted is incomplete.
Examples of Concealing Resistance
One of the most common subjects around which people conceal victims’ resistance is sexualized violence. This has become more apparent with the blossoming awareness of social problems like rape culture. Misinformed opinions often suggest that victims did nothing to try to stop their assailants, and that the common choice not to report to police means victims are passive or that it didn’t even really happen.
As a therapist who works frequently with victims of sexualized violence, I see the choice not to report a sexualized assault as resistance based on sound situational logic. The reality is, many women and men who report rape are subjected to all sorts of doubting, undignifying and disrespectful responses. To resist the likelihood of being treated like that is a sign of good mental health from my perspective – and certainly not evidence of a lack of resistance.
Concealing Resistance in Professional Literature
Through careless uses of language, professionals frequently and unwittingly conceal victims’ resistance. This example was taken from the website of a Canadian sexual assault centre:
“Our model for counseling enables women to cope with the affects of assault ranging from anger and grief to issues around sexuality, intimacy and trust.”
By positioning “anger, grief, issues around sexuality, intimacy, and trust” as effects of an assault, the author conceals how the victim resists. Those “effects” contain an implicit negative bias, becoming like symptoms to be cured through their model for counselling. On the other hand, if we frame them as responses, it becomes clearer that the victim is resisting. As responses, those “effects” are in opposition to the assault, which implies resistance to the violence. Just about any time we call responses “effects”, we conceal victims’ resistance.
Violence, Abuse, and Children
One of the most pervasive cultural narratives when it comes to children is that “children are innocent”. This innocence is often related to helplessness and passivity when it comes to adversity. It’s common for adults to regard children as being unable to fend for themselves when bad things happen. Misinformed effects-based language is often applied to the responses children take up when they or the people they care about are subjected to violence or abuse.
Here’s an example:
“Children who witness family violence often display elevated rates of depression, aggression, delinquency, and other emotional problems.”
This quote, also taken from a Canadian anti-violence agency’s website, conceals children’s resistance through the suggestion that “depression, aggression, delinquency, and other emotional problems” are the result (or effect) of witnessing “family violence” (an agentless term that also obscures perpetrator responsibility). A response-based alternative statement like,
“Children who witness one parent abusing the other often respond with unhappiness, anger, and other forms of emotional distress.”
makes it more clear that children’s responses to violence are actually resistance. To feel angry, unhappy or depressed, and to act out in response to abuse implies that these witnesses are taking a position against the abuse, which is inherently resistant.
How We Can Help
As a society, we can help by including accounts of resistance in our descriptions of violence – because resistance is as much a part of violence as the offender’s actions. We can also help by recognizing people’s actions in the wake of adversity as responses, rather than effects. The language of responses implies that people are active social agents, whereas the language of effects implies that people are passively acted upon and subsequently damaged.
On a practical level, when people in our lives disclose violence or abuse, we can ask questions like,
- “How did you respond?"
- "What did you do?”
- “How did you know to do that?”
These kinds of questions help elicit and honour accounts of resistance than more common questions like, “How did that make you feel?” – which implies that the person was passively acted upon, and that their feelings are an effect rather than a response.