Sanctuary for the Abused

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Catholic View on Verbal Abuse

It may be surprising and alarming to some that the U.S. Catholic bishops consider verbal abuse and harassment as much a part of the continuum of abusive behavior as physical abuse.

What is verbal abuse or harassment? It is obviously personal insult and attack using words. As the late Justice Potter Stewart famously said about pornography, you know it when you see it, and, I would add, especially when you feel it. Like everyone else, I have witnessed instances of verbal abuse. But, like many, I was fortunate enough to never experience it from my own family. Some are not so fortunate.

One type of verbal abuse takes the following form. First, the victim makes the naive mistake, in retrospect, of sharing with others or somehow revealing to others a particular enthusiasm -- it could be an enthusiasm for a person, a place, a job, a hobby, even a religious belief. The verbal abuser -- and I will generously assume that the verbal abuser is acting out of unfortunate but unconscious habit -- will immediately see this revealed enthusiasm as a vulnerability, a point of attack. The verbal abuser then zeroes in and attacks by insulting, denigrating, or mocking what the victim likes or values. The victim learns to keep his own counsel and to keep his guard up in future encounters. True communion or fellowship is sabotaged.

Why does the verbal abuser in this scenario take a revelation of what one likes as an invitation to mockery and sarcasm? Well, it could be that the verbal abuser has himself been the target of the same treatment. It could be that the verbal abuser is a bitter and disillusioned person whose ideals have been gravely disappointed by someone important to them.

The verbal attacker need not be malicious per se, but just a person who himself has been deeply wounded by life (see Our Sunday Visitor article on "Unconscious Abuse" authored by a priest of the Diocese of Phoenix).

What makes this particular form of verbal abuse even worse is its taking place among people who are forced together on a continual basis, whether in the workplace or in the family. The situation is especially bad within family circles. The family should be a safe haven where the defenses and barriers that may be necessary in the workplace can be temporarily dropped. The family circle should be a place where you can feel free to be yourself, to be vulnerable, to be fearless, to share what you value most. The family circle should not be a setting approached with emotional body armor.

Whatever the psychological cause or particular setting, verbal abuse damages the victim.

But the verbal harassment also damages the verbal abuser.

Interestingly enough, Catholic teaching views wrong or evil acts as being even more damaging to the perpetrator than to the victim because the agent of a bad act is damaging his own moral nature and character (see Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1731, on the effect of our free acts).

The victim is not making himself a bad person -- he is suffering as an innocent party, just as Christ did. The verbal abuser, on the other hand, is making himself into a worse person every time he launches an attack on another's person, reputation, or life work.

So to draw attention to the problem is a favor to the verbal abuser. In the language of the Church, drawing his attention to the problem is an act of mercy.

What resolution can be made for the New Year? The verbal abuser should resolve to nip in the bud the urge to mock or attack. Both need grace to keep these resolutions. That grace is available upon the asking.

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