How people use a word can tell you more about them than they wish — more adventures in dictionaries
Content Warning: the following essay (which will also touch on dangerous misperceptions and myths about sexual orientation) includes some specifics about physical abuse of children and worse. Only click when you’re ready …
By amazing I mean that I received a lot of these admonishments during a 6-week period (when I was aged 10) while my arm was in a sling because of a broken collar bone. There were also stitches visible on my head and face from the same beating. Imagine being an adult looking into a 10-year-old’s stitched up face and telling the kid he was to blame for getting that beating.
That was not the only time that one of Dad’s beatings sent me or someone else in the family to an emergency room, nor were us kids the only victims. When my 7-year-old sister’s skull was fractured by a beating from Dad, she made the mistake of telling the doctors that she hadn’t fallen down any stairs (there were no staircases in the house, for one); she told them what really happened. After Dad convinced the cop that my sister was lying, but apparently knowing that people were now watching for signs of abuse, Dad punished my sister for telling the truth by killing the family cat. This also reinforced the lesson to all of us that even if we thought we could escape him, he’d just hurt someone we loved.
Many adults in our lives knew at least some of the details of these incidents. Clearly, the various church members and teachers who admonished me about being a better son after the collarbone incident knew that the story of me falling out of a tree was a lie. But even knowing that, they continued to insist on calling what he did “strict.” At the time, they never called it “abuse.”
abuse vb. trans. 1. To put to a wrong use, misuse : to abuse one’s authority, position, power, wealth &c. 2. a To treat badly, handle roughly or cruelly, to injure by so doing (of animals, machines); b to betray (confidence, secret &c.). 3. a To subject to verbal insult; scold loudly and coarsely, revile; b (in mild sense) blame, express disapproval of, find fault with.
—excerpted from The Complete and Unabridged Little & Ives Webster’s Dictionary and Home Reference Library
Note that I said “at the time.” Many years later they suddenly were willing to use the word. I was 31 years old when I came out of the closet. I had been living about 1200 miles away from Dad since the age of 15 (after Mom and Dad divorced when the existence of two of my half-brothers and a long running affair with the woman who would become my stepmother came to light). I had gone to university, entered the work force, and settled in Seattle and finally came out as a gay man.
And suddenly several of those relatives (and a few of the old church members) who had never wanted to call Dad’s behavior abusive at the time came forward to ask me if his abuse had included sexual elements. They had never felt enough concern to try to stop the abuse or even talk about it as abuse when they knew about the broken bones, gashes, concussions, and the like. But when their prejudices prompted them to leap to conclusions about sexual abuse, now they were ready to weigh in on the subject.
So, just to be perfectly clear: I was never sexually abused by anyone as a child. Dad never sexually abused any of his children. Physical, verbal, and emotional abuse was there by the metric tonne, but never any sexual abuse. It is true that Dad often called me and my two younger brothers faggots and worse while beating us, but there was never any sexual abuse.
When I said this to the suddenly concerned relatives and former co-congregationalists, some of them pressed. “Are you certain? I know his abuse was pretty traumatic. Maybe you’re blocking some of it out?” Despite my insistence otherwise, I’ve since heard from various third-parties that several family members remain convinced that Dad’s abuse had to include sexual abuse, and that’s the reason I’m gay.
So let’s circle back to what the refusal to use the word tells us about these people. First of all, even though any rational outsider would consider beating small children severely enough to cause unconsciousness, concussions, fractured skulls, or other broken bones as rough and cruel handling, it didn’t qualify as abuse to these folks. It wasn’t abuse so long as it seemed to be serving the purpose of punishing the child for imagined misbehavior. It only shifted to abuse in their perceptions when they believed the result was something they considered sinful. To relate it back to the dictionary, sense 1 up there is the key: if the result of the punishments and injuries is an obedient child and later a faithful adult, then said punishments weren’t a misuse of Dad’s position as our father. The ends, in their worldview, justify any means, no matter how cruel or injurious.
It’s the Just World Fallacy that is so prevalent among evangelicals and related subcultures all over again. One aspect of the fallacy is: god only allows bad things to happen to those who deserve it. But another aspect is just as important: if a person fails to endure adversity “correctly,” then they have failed a test from god. So in their minds, since they insist that my being gay must be a result of the abuse, it’s just proof that I’m failing god. It’s a really convenient I-win-you-lose situation for them. They get to feel morally superior no matter which way it turns out. They didn’t get abused like that as children, therefore they are clearly more deserving of kindness than I or my siblings. The abuse didn’t, in their view, make me a stronger person, therefore they are clearly more deserving of god’s favor than I am.
And this is why it is virtually impossible to reason with people with these deplorable sorts of worldviews. Telling them that a particular policy will result in tens of thousands of people dying doesn’t make them react with compassion; because they believe that only people who deserve to die (or get sick, or lose their homes, or lose their jobs, or get raped, et cetera) are the ones who will be hurt. Pointing out that innocent people have died in a natural disaster they insist is punishment from god doesn’t make them reconsider that belief, because only the people who fail to live up to god’s standards will succumb to adversity when they encounter it.
It’s no different than the victim-blaming folks hurled at me when I was a kid. To them, it wasn’t Dad’s responsibility to refrain from abusing his wife and kids, it was always our responsibility to figure out how to placate him. It isn’t the conservative’s responsibility to oppose discrimination and to stand up for the sick or poor, it is the marginalized group’s responsibility to placate their oppressors, or make themselves well, or pull themselves from poverty. To them, it is always the victim’s fault, unless they are the victim.
And you can’t have a rational discussion around that.