In conflating harm with abuse, we contribute to disposability politics and stray further away from a more just future of accountability and healing.
This essay discusses sexual violence and mentions r/pe
My queer parent, Hunter Shackelford, and I sit around and talk a lot. For hours, most days. At the genesis of our relationship, one thing we agreed on almost immediately is that abuse and harm are two very different things. Online, especially, but also in real life, many people refer to harm-doers as abusers. It is striking to me because, as much as I am staunchly against both, I understand the impact of language and just how much it can determine how we interact with a person or a situation.
All of us are capable of being both an abuser and a harm-doer, but the tougher reality is that even if we are never an abuser, no one can ever say they haven’t caused someone any harm. Whether it is accidentally stepping on a person’s toe, or cussing someone out because you have had a rough day, or—to move away from trivial examples and into what prompted this essay—defending a serial rapist by way of celebrating their music. All abusers and all harm-doers should be held accountable for their wrongdoings; not all wrongdoings are created equal, however, and therefore accountability must look different depending on the violence committed.
Whereas harm is a one-time act of violence or infliction of pain, that can be either intentional or unintentional, abuse is about a continued and repeated force of violence that mistreats, mishandles, or exploits someone’s body, being, and/or feelings. It is about a commitment—interrogated or uninterrogated—to enforcing violence onto someone else with no interest in stopping. When we position abusers as equal to harm-doers, we not only ignore the harm that we have done to others, but we truncate the extent to which abusers must be held accountable—or we lead with a politic of disposability rather than principle and care for those who commit harm. Said differently, we should be very particular, careful, and intentional about what language we use when pointing out something harmful someone has done. It shifts not only the weight of the harm but the response to it as well.
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I am an abolitionist, which is to say that I am committed to doing away with disposability politics—or a politic that leads with exile rather than transformation. I believe that to dispose of a person forthright is not an act of justice, but rather recapitulates the abuses of the carceral state; it is a re-creation of the violence inflicted by the settler-colonial state, most often wielded against Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. While I don’t believe in “cancel culture,” I do believe in the politics of disposability that so often leave no room for people to (un)learn, to atone for their violence, and, perhaps most importantly, that says abusers and harm-doers must be held accountable in the same ways. This is another cage; another form of incarceration that damages more than it heals.
In so many ways, our society has committed itself to disposing of Black and brown people. From the school-to-prison pipeline, the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline, mass incarceration and more, the state is built around disposing of and incarcerating Black and brown people. But as Paulo Freire writes in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, education is politics, and transformative work can be done by educating and enlightening the oppressed—a literal pedagogical approach to (liberating) the oppressed. Freire understood that harm, and abuse in many ways, is taught through how we are socialized in-part through education.
I spoke with Roslyn Talusan, a culture critic and anti-rape activist, about what she believes the differences between harm and abuse are. She had this to say: “I think abusers cause harm, but harm-doers aren’t necessarily abusive. For abuse, there has to be a pattern, and a power dynamic being exploited to exert control and dominance. Harm-doers are assholes, but aren’t necessarily doing it for power. Often I think it can just be a matter of bottled up emotions and taking it out on people around them, or [just] having a bad day. Both are certainly inexcusable, but I don’t think it’s helpful to paint every asshole as an abuser. I think abusers are more intentional, more predatory, more calculated than harm-doers. Abusers usually are charming to the majority of people in their life, and specifically target vulnerable people to enact their abuse, and that’s why I think they’re more dangerous in that aspect.”
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Roslyn is correct. Instead of Prisons talks extensively about how power, calculated behavior, and poverty each play a role in the lead up to abuse. It also explores a lesser-discussed cause of abuse: culture. Not just rape culture, but the larger culture under which we are socialized into (normalizing) violence, harm, and abuse.
To state it more plainly: a rape apologist is not necessarily an abuser. Someone who is sexually violent—as due to being unclear about boundaries and consent, and not because they are intending to repeatedly control, exploit, or gain power over others—is also not an abuser. However, people with a sustained history of this kind of behavior, often coupled with a commitment to gaslighting others—especially women—are absolutely abusers. Someone disinterested in unlearning their harmful and bigoted beliefs, or who is uninterested in naming their harm as such, is an abuser.
Storyteller and shapeshifter, Hunter Shackelford, perfectly encapsulates the overall difference between abuse and harm, and how we can respond to both:
“Language has the power to bring us closer to ourselves and the people around us, and it also has the ability to complicate our knowing when we use certain words to deliver impact over meaning. Naming abuse, harm, and/or toxic behaviors is difficult when many individuals and vulnerable communities are often using mainstream simplified language that feels the most accessible (and what feels good) and has the ability to deliver the impact they experienced. For example, when you want the world to know your pain exactly how you felt it, you may default to using abuse because it hurt. But abuse isn’t just what hurts, it’s a specific type of violence.
Abuse is a pattern of behaviors to wield power or control over another person’s body, being, access, and/or wellness—consciously or not, intentionally or not. Harm is a violent behavior or experience that can be a singular incident that someone may or may not know the impact of—consciously or not, intentionally or not. The difference between the two is a fine line and a bold line, because we know that a one-time incident could possibly happen again; so what could be harm one day can escalate and become abuse. The closer we get to a future where our society and communities embody a culture that makes the distinction of abuse and harm, makes room for the overlapping gray [areas], and creates space for transformative accountability, survivors and the world will flourish.”
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Abuse and harm are not always black and white, and both are always unconscionable. Irrespective of whether we are being harmed or abused, the pain is never easy to handle nor is it ever escapable. The onus, then, should never be on the victim or the survivor to differentiate which of the two they are experiencing, but rather we have to become committed—societally—to the undoing of conflating these two experiences so that we can work through how both abusers and harm-doers must be held accountable to whichever of the two they have committed.