June 24, 2014

Verbal Abuse, Upper Class Women, and Domestic Violence


Abuse is never an easy subject to speak of whether because one has experienced it and finds it difficult to speak of, or because it can be an extremely complex subject, or both. And the rationale underlying one’s own opinions can be extremely difficult to grasp.

There is, of course, always the temptation, often subconscious, to assume that one can draw universal conclusions from one’s own experiences. There is also the desire to believe that specific ways of being or doing might enable one to escape abuse; an understandable desire that except for the fact that it can easily lead to drawing conclusions about how women who are abused ‘brought it on themselves’ by being different or doing things differently.

Amongst the clearest indications of this are myths which surround domestic violence, particularly in the case of upper class women — the most popular image of domestic violence appears to be that of a drunken slob who comes home late, slaps his wife, and then promptly (and conveniently!) passes out. Although the image certainly isn’t beyond the realm of the possible, not one part of it isn’t deeply problematic.

To begin with, domestic violence isn’t limited to relationship violence whether or not marital. Although Indian law and public discourse focus on abuse by husbands, in-laws, and (more recently) partners, the fact of the matter is that there is much violence which occurs within women’s natal homes. Some of this is recognised in terms of female infanticide but much of it (including infanticide) simply does not find its way into a larger discussion of domestic violence, particularly in the case of non-violent abuse such as the withholding of adequate food or education. Child abuse is often domestic abuse but the recognition that being the case is often non-existent, as is the abuse of, for example, unmarried women within their natal homes.

Where violence is recognised, it is rarely as ‘clean’ as the man who slaps his wife, does no exceptional damage to her body, and then disappears from the scene (for the time being). Violence is often exceptionally ugly and long drawn out. It isn’t necessarily a ‘30 second – no harm done/grievous injury caused’ episode, or even a series of such episodes, even if it isn’t described at any length. The term ‘violence’ or even ‘torture’ in themselves cover up all manner of acts, and can easily leave one with absolutely no understanding of what is involved.

Descriptions of domestic violence do often invoke the image of the man who was drunk or under the influence of drugs though. And, in some cases, abusers are drunk or drugged or both, but they may not be either. There is no shortage of testimonies from women who have been consistently abused by men who are ‘upstanding pillars of the community’ and ‘highly respected’. These are not necessarily the kind of men who are routinely drunken slobs, certainly not in public. In fact, they can be exactly the opposite: men who calculatedly use violence to control the women whom they abuse. Men who excel at projecting the image of not being amongst those who perpetrate violence. Men who just might, in some cases, be less dangerous if they were to drink and do drugs considering that substance abuse would likely dampen their cognitive abilities.

Abusers come in all forms. They may abuse substances or not. They may engage in physical violence or not. They may be visibly abusive or not.

That said, what is almost certain in the case of the upper class abuser is that he is likely to be able to easily isolate those whom he abuses. He doesn’t necessarily fit into the mould of the abuser in popular imagery. He is likely to have a coterie of sycophants desperate to exonerate him. And he will likely have the education and the ability to play to an audience, or a range of audiences, saying exactly what they need to hear — whether it’s ‘She didn’t cook’ or ‘She had an affair’ or ‘She insults my parents’ or, simply, ‘She’s crazy’ — to enable them to rationalise his abuse, if at all they believe in its existence. And the society of an upper class man generally has no reason to choose to believe that one of their own is abusive — they are likely to have less to lose by believing an abuser than the person he has abused. If nothing else, the good graces of the abuser especially if he is better placed than the abused woman.

That is probably what lies at the crux of abuse within the upper class; the woman abused could easily be educated and wealthy in her own right but that doesn’t matter. What matters is the imbalance of power between her and her abuser, and the fact that if he is better placed than her as an individual (which is often the case, especially since notions of family ‘honour’ could come in leaving her without support), it could quite simply wipe out any benefits she has such as those of education or her own money. (And that doesn't even factor in the enhanced desire some abusers may have to control seemingly independent women.)

When it comes to education, it is unlikely that there would be a way in which a degree would help a victim during an actual episode of violence. And as for money, apart from the fact that it can become inconsequential if the abuser has more, there’s also the question of whether an abused woman has beneficial access to her money — without beneficial access, all the ostensible wealth in the world (even if it were in her name) would be entirely worthless.

The most often ignored aspect of domestic violence though isn’t physical or sexual or financial violence in itself but emotional abuse which exists both by itself (most easily expressed through verbal abuse) and as a component of other forms of violence. It can destroy an abused woman’s sense of self, and her ability to act as an autonomous being. And, ultimately, that is what abuse is about: crushing the spirit of another, destroying their voice. The various forms of abuse are often little more than the means to an end.

Nonetheless, verbal and emotional abuse is often viewed as not being that big a deal. And, perhaps, if restricted to the linguistically lazy spouting the occasional expletive, it wouldn’t be that big a deal. Verbal abuse though is very rarely restricted to nothing but the occasional expletive in complete isolation; it is invariably a structure of manipulation intended to break a person.

As a general rule, verbal abuse tends to ‘escalate’ into other forms of abuse which are less socially acceptable — a man losing his temper and shouting, or simply saying unkind things, is so much more ‘excusable’ than a man breaking a woman’s arm. That said, verbal abuse too, like other forms of abuse, is a means to an end. And it is possible to argue that different forms of violence are merely different roads intended to reach the same destination at which the person being abused is broken in spirit (and possibly, if verbal abuse alone doesn’t ‘work’, in body), and under the control of the abuser.

In this construction, there is no type of abuse whose infliction is worse than the other (although the experience of various forms of abuse could easily differ from woman to woman, with each woman seeing one form as being worse than the other). As far as infliction is concerned though, the various forms of abuse are not a hierarchy but a series of alternatives for abusers who typically simply begin by employing the one which would have ‘society’ judge them the least: verbal abuse. And there really are no prizes for guessing which abusers are likely to be most adept at appearing at their best: it is upper class abusers. Men of the world. Educated. Respected, of course. Used to telling their story, and even more used to being heard.

When it comes to domestic violence, it is upper class women who are most likely to be abused by upper class men. Being upper class themselves does not necessarily protect them from being abused or enable them to escape abuse without support. What it does do is enable ‘society’ to blame abused upper class women for staying in abusive situations and, sometimes, for being abused because of their supposedly having ‘chosen’ to stay. And, of course, even the fault-finding and victim blaming is only in those cases where ‘society’ deigns to accept the occurrence of abuse at all.