That’s abuse – 1

Towards the end of his last term, Mayor Bloomberg’s administration, through the Mayor’s Office to Combat Domestic Violence, initiated a public service campaign called That’s Abuse in New York City. What set this campaign apart from other campaigns involving domestic abuse was that it focused on emotional and psychological abuse, a form of violence that is endemic in human societies, but has not previously received the attention it deserves. To many people it is incomprehensible that words can cause severe damage.

How endemic? The dynamics of self-worth that get dragged into play in emotional and psychological abuse are integral to the racism faced by blacks in the United States, and the Dalits (so called “untouchables”) of India, to take two very large examples. The exercise of social control, of a minority group by the majority, is predicated on the control of self-worth of the target group. It is summed up rather tersely but comprehensively by Fanon in Black Skins, White Masks: “‘Dirty nigger!’ Or simply, ‘Look, a Negro!'” Indians have their equivalent for ‘dirty nigger’ in many languages, but the mechanics of how it works is the same in any language – decimation of the target’s self-worth by tight control of cultural and linguistic space, existential space. In this example, not only is nigger derogatory but is inextricably linked with dirty. If a person is referred to and/or treated as “dirty” all day and night, year in and year out, from childhood, it cannot but have it’s impact on the psyche of that person. To quote Patrick McGoohan, “number Six”, the lead in the show The Prisoner: “I am not a number, I am a  free man. I will not be filed, briefed, debriefed, indexed or numbered! My life is my own.” Identity, who you are, who you believe you are, is first, all about words.

Arabs in the US, or even those who “look” Arab, can vouch for how profoundly language can impact a person’s daily existence. The word ‘terrorist’ does not even have to be uttered, but vast numbers of ordinary citizens, airline crews, even large numbers in the TSA and law enforcement treat people by default as if they were terrorists because they are or “look” Arab.

As societies, we have been engaged in emotional and psychological violence for millennia. What is new is that only now, in the last decade or two, some societies and jurisdictions are taking cognizance of its presence in the home. The targets: typically children, women and elders. It should come as no surprise though, since we do not necessarily leave our practices in the street on the street.

What the campaign set out to do is to make the contexts of abuse more accessible. How may an ordinary person, not an academic or a social worker, recognize abuse when they see it, or worse, when they are experiencing it? The same abuses have more devastating impacts when they are directed at children and the elderly. The elderly also face an additional source of abuse – the financial exploitation of their savings and assets. Borrowing freely from the NYC That’s Abuse campaign, this series is meant to share and show the common everyday forms of elder abuse, emotional and psychological, violence that does not always involve physical or sexual violence.

To many people, it is incomprehensible how words or gestures or seemingly irrelevant and minor actions, can inflict psychological or emotional violence. In India it is legally prohibited to use derogatory language against specific castes and tribes. In France, it is prohibited to use certain language and symbols against Jews. In the United States, there is “hate speech” legislation. The idea of ‘mere’ words inflicting great damage is well established in law around the globe. How this violence is perpetrated in the confines of personal relationships is the objective of this series. To quote the UN Secretary General:

“For many, elder abuse conjures an image of a heartless caregiver who is not well-known to the victim. While this deplorable problem does persist, more often it is family members who perpetrate the violations, which include neglect as well as psychological, financial and physical abuse.”


“I will feed my family rat droppings if I want, nobody’s forcing you to eat it.  We will eat rat droppings if we want, no one is asking you to eat it…. who are you to interfere with my servants?”

K. Vidya Devi

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