On vulnerability and child abuse

Two comments recently have set me thinking about vulnerability and power in relation to abuse, assault, harassment and bullying.

The first was a comment by Nicholas Kristof, the respected New York Times journalist, and co-author of Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity Worldwide. He was reporting that a female US Navy sailor visiting Dubai disarmed a would-be rapist, beat him into submission and called the police. “She holds up way more than half the sky!” he wrote admiringly.

The second was a comment about the findings of the Rose Review, Respect at Work, an inquiry into sexual harassment and bullying within the BBC following the institutional disaster caused by the Jimmy Savile scandal.

The report is a damning exposé of an institutional culture which left staff terrified of some senior managers and on-screen stars. Instances of overt sexual approaches, sexually harassing text messages, overtly sexist comments against females in some teams and humiliating behaviour like shouting, swearing and public demeaning of employees are documented in the report.

Commenting on this report, one BBC employee said “A key element in all this has a lot to do with vulnerability.”

This seems like a very obvious conclusion – in fact, it is ALL about vulnerability. Being vulnerable is the essential ingredient in becoming the victim of an abuser, harasser or bully. There are, no doubt, attempts to abuse, harass or bully invulnerable people but these attempts usually fail or they are swiftly and effectively handled, either indirectly by seeking a procedural or legal remedy, or directly as in the case of the US sailor who used her martial arts skills to fight and subdue her opponent.

There is, however, a subtly disturbing side to this obvious conclusion. It makes vulnerability a deficiency or failing and has an element of blaming the victim about it. Something along the lines of “If you weren’t vulnerable you wouldn’t be abused, harassed or bullied”.

Let me be quite clear. I do not think that there is anything wrong with vulnerable people, especially women, learning the skills which will make them less vulnerable and there is certainly nothing wrong with using the procedural and legal resources available to seek remedy for a wrong one has suffered.

I am concerned, however, that this approach helps to perpetuate an inappropriate paradigm. By that I mean that there is an implied acceptance that for some people, abuse is inevitable — and the only thing we can do is encourage them to seek remedies after the fact.

Abuse, harassment and bullying are products of hierarchical power structures. In every human institution ranging from the family, through social, community and commercial organisations, into instruments of government like the police, the courts and the military, there are built-in structures of power.  It is how human beings have organised themselves and it is so commonplace that it has achieved the status of normal or assumptive.  We assume that every little group must have a leader. For instance, on our census forms there is an assumption that even in marriages where there are only two partners someone is the “head of the household”.

Where there are hierarchies of power there will always be the powerful, the less powerful and the weak. As a general rule, in all these hierarchies the weakest are children and women. So although the key element in abuse, harassment and bullying is vulnerability, vulnerability is not the cause of the various kinds of abuse. The cause is the very high value we place on power, strength and invulnerability, a cultural norm in which we are all more or less complicit.

There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we think about human relations in all the arenas of life. We need a new paradigm: one which does not put such a very high value on power, strength and invulnerability. We who care and have the means to do so must work to change social structures so that there is not even the tiniest implication of fault in vulnerability.

While we live in societies that value dominance above gentleness it is important that vulnerable people in general, and women in particular, learn some physical skills and other strategies to defend themselves. It is important, however, to remember that in acquiring the skills to fend off predators we are still operating within an unacceptable paradigm – one that says that it is acceptable for the strongest to win and the weak and vulnerable to lose.

This is actually a perversion of our human condition. We begin our lives as extremely vulnerable beings in need of the utmost care and protection and we end them in a similar state however much we might strive for strength and power in the intervening years. We are taught to be very much afraid of our vulnerability but it is part of our humanity. The capacity for vulnerability is what saves us from brutishness and enables us to produce and treasure that which is beautiful.

We need to challenge the power structures that tell us, but especially that tell children, that might is right. We need to re-educate ourselves so that we can then educate our children to value, really value, gentleness and vulnerability, care and cooperation above power, force and competition.

Only when we have learned that lesson will we all be truly safe.