The Upside of Abuse

Martin Hughes has responded to my prior post on anti-theism. He notes that he decided not to respond point by point, but I definitely consider it responsive nonetheless. It’s a personal and vulnerable post, and I think it’s a valuable contribution to any discussion of the experiences of prior believers.

Martin’s post also clarifies that part of our disagreement is in how we conceive and construct our identities around religion. Where mine are many and determined by my actions, his is singular and determined by his primary priorities. While he’s rejecting “anti-theist” as his singular label, he’s not rejecting all anti-theist work. I still have serious concerns about the way vocal and public rejections of that label feed narratives that reject anti-theist work as anti-social, but I think Alex Gabriel’s piece from yesterday can speak to those for now.

Instead, I’m going to answer the personal with the personal. I don’t know that this is even arguing with Martin’s post, though my perspective is definitely not his and is counter to it in some ways. But who knows, maybe people dealing with situations like his will get something out of it.

It’s not a secret that I come from an abusive home. From the time I learned to say, “No”, there was nothing I could do right and very few places I could go to get away from the consequences of that. Eventually abuse became abandonment, and there’s nowhere to go to get away from that.

It’s also not a secret that one of the places Gamergate and “alt-right” harassment tactics were honed was in the broader secular movement or that I was one of the targets of those. Implicit and explicit threats, demeaning sexual commentary, smear campaigns, coordinated monitoring and attacks at a dedicated site, denial or tacit acceptance of the harassment from people and institutions who benefited from their critics being silenced, big names directing harassers and refusing to take responsibility–all of that was there. It still is.

People ask me how I do it sometimes, how I handle the harassment. I usually shrug or say I don’t know. I do know. I handle it because I was abused.

Photo of metal statue against the sky, arms crossed, torso and bald head visible.
“Arms crossed” by Forest Runner, CC BY 2.0

Being abused is what gave me the perspective to look at most of the people who’ve tried to harass me and say, “Fucking amateurs. You can’t even see me clearly enough to know what would hurt. You aren’t capable of giving me a single reason why your opinion should matter to me. You’re no one and nothing, and all your years of effort can’t earn you anything but my contempt.”

Being abused is what gave me the moral clarity to stand up and hang responsibility for the harassment around the necks of those who do nothing to stop it, to pin it directly to the chest of those who obliquely encourage it. It allows me to look them in the eye and tell them I and the other people harassed are not the problem here until they look away or back down.

Being abused is what gave me the observational and political skills to see and exploit opportunities to make this movement as a whole one in which harassment and acceptance of harassment are liabilities. It’s allowed me to be highly effective even when threatened. It’s allowed me to keep chipping away, knowing that even if I never make the harassment stop entirely (because how do we do that?), every time I make it cost someone, it becomes less likely to happen to the next person.

Being abused gave me the tools to handle being harassed. It allowed me to survive and thrive in an impossible situation, because I grew up in an impossible situation. It’s still abuse.

Even though being abused made this possible for me, there was no guarantee I was going to survive the abuse in the first place. I nearly didn’t. Even if I never acted on suicidal impulses, there was plenty of reckless behavior that could have gotten me. Or I could have retreated entirely into fantasy and delusion. Goodness knows I tried hard enough more than once.

Even though being abused made this possible for me, there’s no guarantee I was going to build these skills or that I’d be in a position to use them. Plenty of other abused kids don’t. It took a lot of work on my part, and it built off some benefits I started with. Besides which, one of the people most affected by harassment in the movement also came out of an abusive background with a truly impressive variety of skills. It didn’t take many differences between our situations for hers to be so impossible as to break her. The space between best case and worst case is barely something you can see daylight through.

Even though being abused made this possible for me, it still costs. Abuse makes it harder, not easier, to manage when people whose opinions I do care about turn on me. Abuse makes it harder, not easier, to trust in good relationships. Abuse makes it harder, not easier, to accept and internalize praise. Abuse makes it harder, not easier, to relax when I’m not under fire.

Even though being abused made this possible for me, there are other ways to fight harassment. Lindy West, for example, does amazing work making harassment unacceptable and coping with abuse on a scale I haven’t had to. She comes to it not from an abusive background but from humor and a firm belief that people can and should be better than this. And she succeeds too.

So I can look at the ways abuse has gotten me through things other people have found impossible. I can see the impressive array of skills and strategies other people have developed for dealing with abuse, and I can see how those skills help them in other places too. I don’t have to view people who have been abused as lesser or in need of saving, even as I demand resources to help them when and where they need it.

Even as I do all of that, I will remain uncompromising on the fact that abuse is wrong. Though the path to end abuse is hard and often indirect, abuse is wrong. Though what constitutes abuse may not always look the same, abuse is wrong. Though some people come through abuse incredibly well, abuse is wrong.

Though I’ve turned my abuse into an asset, though it’s helped me in an impossible situation, though it’s benefited other people, it’s still wrong. So is religion, even though we humans in all our need and ingenuity find ways to make good things out of it. It’s still wrong.

The Upside of Abuse