When I was growing up, my father had two favorite words, ignoramus and moron. He hurled them at my mother for any-and-all perceived infractions: A broken glass, over or-under cooked food, or a misplaced paper. I heard them too-for tearing my pants after falling off my bike, getting a B on a spelling test, or asking the question, “why?”
Fists, and a leather belt, also flew with gruesome regularity and while I remember it all, it’s his voice in my head that continues to ring most loudly.
The U.S. Department of Justice defines domestic violence as “abusive behavior that is used by one partner to gain or maintain power and control over another intimate partner.” Domestic violence, the Justice Department continues, includes not only physical, sexual, and economic abuse, but also emotional abuse-the erosion of an individual’s sense of self-worth or self-esteem by name calling, constant criticism, failure to listen, humiliation or infantilizing, yelling, or isolating or threatening him or her.
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The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence estimates that 1.3 million U.S. residents — approximately 85 percent of them female — are victims of physical assault each year. No one has a clue how many are emotionally abused because in most of the country verbal taunts are not considered a crime. But as evidence of the long-term damage caused by emotional abuse-increased anxiety, depression, and post traumatic stress-continues to mount, some advocates are turning their attention to education, seeking ways to teach everyone, from youth to senior citizens, about the harm words can cause and generate behavioral change.
France is leading the way with new legislation. According to The New York Times, the French National Assembly approved a proposal, announced by French Prime Minister Francois Fillon that will add psychological violence to a law assisting victims of domestic abuse. Digitaljournal.com reports that French police will be required to issue a warning to perpetrators for a first offense; subsequent infractions will result in a fine of up to 75,000 Euros [$103,000 USD]; the wearing of an electronic monitoring device to track the offender’s movements; a restraining order; and three years in jail. The Times notes that the proposal is an attempt to elucidate the harm caused by repeated put-downs and derogatory comments. It will apply to husbands, wives, unmarried partners and “concubines.”
Putting Respect On The Books
Everyone agrees that laws do not, by themselves, cause cultural norms to shift; at the same time, those on the frontlines of domestic violence work believe that the proposed legislation is an important first step in drawing attention to the seriousness of the problem. As you might expect, debate about the law is raging-and raising concerns about free speech, civility and social discourse.
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will also hurt us Despite the recent hooplah over the proposed law, France’s concern about the long term impact of emotional abuse is not new, but grew out of efforts to enhance interpersonal respect that began in 1993 when Sweden became the first European country to enact legislation against “moral harassment” in the workplace — repeated, non-physical, acts meant to humiliate or isolate a worker. In 2000, The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions conservatively estimated that eight percent of the European workforce — approximately 12 million people — was subjected to moral harassment each year. The law specifically disallows malicious gossip, demeaning comments, ridicule, threats, and being given no work or meaningless work. That December, when the Charter of the Fundamental Rights of the European Union was enacted, it included an Article guaranteeing every worker “the right to working conditions which respect his or her health, safety, and dignity.” Two years later, in 2002, Belgium and France passed their own laws against moral harassment and articulated a commitment to stemming workplace hostility.
Lawyers and domestic violence experts concur that the laws and Charter are well intentioned. But are they effective? Maria Isabel S. Guerrero, writing in the International and Comparative Law Review admits that the provisions have led to very few convictions, but concludes that they are important because they promote dialogue and debate about acceptable behavior while on the job. “As a result of awareness about moral harassment,” she writes, “employers in Sweden in both the public and private sphere have recognized moral harassment in their policies and guidelines.”
Other proponents go even further, calling the laws a stepping-stone to discussion of what it means to engage in civil discourse; they see this legislation as a tool in fomenting conversation about ways to disagree without antagonism. Still, they wondered why the provisions applied only to the workplace, and not the home. The French proposal-likely to be formally enacted this summer-is a direct outgrowth of that question.
Thought Police or Criminally Cruel
Response to the legislative announcement has been mixed. Some, of course, are cheering it, arguing that outlawing psychological violence sends a clear message to bullies and abusers that their behavior will no longer be tolerated. It will also save lives, they say, because emotional abuse is often a precursor to physical battering.
Opponents, however, argue that the law will be both meaningless and impossible to enforce. Christopher Vivet, Vice Prosecutor of Grenoble, has been widely quoted in the European press. “The draft law turns a very vague behavior into an infraction. In criminal law, behaviors are defined very precisely so that each citizen knows what is or is not allowed …[The proposal] gives a large space to the arbitrary.”
“It’s using a cannon to kill a fly” French psychologist Anne Girard agrees, telling reporters that “Squabbling couples will allege all kinds of things about each other but they won’t necessarily be true.”
Indeed, throughout Europe, opponents of the measure have captured the lion’s share of media attention. Ceri Radford, a columnist at the British Telegraph wrote a piece entitled “Nagging Your Husband is Not a Crime”; it went viral. “As it stands, the legislation would appear to cover everything from nagging, to false accusations of infidelity, to sustained campaigns of verbal abuse, to a failure to supply the right answer to the question, ‘Does my bum look big in this?’ “
Despite the snippy tone, Radford’s concern is pragmatic. “It is incredibly hard to draw the line between the normal friction thrown up by two human beings going through life’s frustrations together and the actions of the criminally cruel…Abusive relationships of any kind ruin lives, and a straightforward campaign to stigmatize this sort of behavior and encourage its victims to seek help is eminently sensible. But by taking the further step of criminalizing harsh words, the French government risks turning law enforcement into the policing of morality,” she wrote.
Many in the U.S. agree. A blog about the French law, posted on Feministing.com, elicited more than a dozen comments, most of them opposed to the proposal. “This is too close to thought policing for my taste,” wrote “Crumpet.” “These cases will literally be, ‘he said, she said,'” wrote “daveNYC.” “KBZ” questioned the definition of psychological violence. “What does it include? Cheating? Arguing? Nagging? Withholding sex or affection? The silent treatment?”
Joan E. Bertin, executive director of the National Coalition Against Censorship, is adamant that such a law would never fly in the United States. “You can’t criminalize speech unless it constitutes an actual threat. It has to be pervasive and severe to constitute a crime. Just because you feel bad about something someone says to you doesn’t mean that they’re violating the law. Speech needs a lot of breathing room.”
Bertin also objects to the way the proposed shift will treat victims. “I know the law is supposed to be gender neutral, but the image in most people’s heads is an abused woman who needs protecting. This idea reinforces the stereotype of women not being able to stand up for themselves,” she continues. “It’s using a cannon to kill a fly, a buzz saw where a scalpel is needed. This is not to say that verbal abuse isn’t bad. But in my experience efforts to legislate speech always creates a backlash.”
Getting Stories Out
Indeed, verbal abuse often goes far beyond bad and causes long-lasting damage to those who are told, day-in and day-out, that they are stupid, ugly, unlovable and useless. Nancy S. Erickson is a Brooklyn, New York-based attorney and forensic psychologist who has worked to defend abused women and children since 1980. Although her work is confined to the U.S., she says that in 90 to 100 percent of her cases physical violence is coupled with emotional abuse. “My clients always tell me that the emotional is worse than the physical,” she says. “The bruises go away and the bones heal, but emotional abuse destroys you. It goes to the core of your being.”
©Jil Guyon Unlike Bertin, Erickson sees the French law as a good starting point, a way of sending a loud-and-clear message to abusers. “I believe in getting stuff into the media,” she says.
“Getting stories about people who’ve been convicted of emotional abuse into the papers or on the Internet will send a really good message to the public about not having to live with or accept this behavior.”
She also believes that legislation alone is inadequate in stemming our culture’s acceptance of psychological abuse—whether it is between adult partners or between children and their caretakers. “Children learn certain basics about the world and about themselves as they develop,” she says. “If they’re put down all the time they learn the wrong things. They learn that there is no safety anywhere. They don’t learn how to have healthy relationships with other people because that’s not what they’ve seen. Children who are hurt emotionally or physically end up as adults who don’t treat others well or who accept abusive partners. It goes through the generations unless they get help-therapy-to work on it.”
Shelley Orren-King, a New York City therapist affiliated with the Gestalt Center for Psychotherapy and Training, has counseled countless emotionally abused children and adults. “On an emotional level, children don’t know how to distinguish between being hit by words or being hit by a hand,” she begins. “But as a therapist, it’s often harder to get to emotional abuse. Physical abuse is concrete. The person may have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other symptoms may come up. Emotional abuse is different. It reverberates in the person’s head and they hear it repeatedly. The French proposal makes it clear that emotional abuse is unacceptable. It may get people to wake up about allowing this behavior and force them to really think about how they treat each other.”
In the end, she says, if the proposed French policy teaches people to recognize that the schoolyard taunt is wrong—that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will also hurt us—it will have opened the door to profound changes in how we disagree with one another. What’s more, it will illustrate the power of legislative suggestion as a tool to imagine new ways to argue and press our point of view.
Eleanor J. Bader is a freelance writer, teacher, and activist. She writes for The Brooklyn Rail, The L Magazine, RHRealitycheck.org, and other progressive and feminist publications.