In this post I’ll combine the subjects of physical abuse and personal accountability, by publishing an edited version of a piece that I originally posted in an online forum, in a response to a woman who had been abused both when growing up and later on in her marriage.
The gist of what I’m trying to get across to her is that it’s possible to hold ourselves responsible for our actions no matter how difficult the situation is, and that holding ourselves responsible is not the same thing as blaming ourselves.
I feel a lot of compassion for your experience, and I agree that placing blame on a victim doesn’t lead to anything constructive, but like J, I would like to make a few distinctions.
You cannot be responsible for another person’s actions. If someone beats you up regularly in your own home, then you have zero responsibility for their actions. The person who’s doing the beating has full responsibility for his/her actions.
You however, have full responsibility for your response/reaction. You can respond in a host of different ways (maybe not when the actual beating is going on, but afterwards). You can stay, you can leave, you can call the police, you can go talk to a friend, you can do nothing, etc..
This is not to say that you are to be blamed for your response! Blame leads nowhere, and has no purpose except to put another individual down, or to put ourselves down.
But as long as you are responsible for your actions, then you can choose a different, and better, response. So holding you responsible for what you do is not about blaming you, it’s about believing that you can make better choices for yourself. It’s about trusting your innate power and the fact that the path to empowerment remains open for every human being during their whole life.
Nothing of this denies the fact that if you had a terrible upbringing then it may be awfully hard to respond in a constructive way, and to get out of a destructive relationship. Even if you didn’t have a bad upbringing, you can get sucked into a bad/abusive relationship, to the point that you hardly can see your options. But you are still responsible! You still have access to your free will, and saying that you are responsible is a way of honoring your integrity and autonomy, and not treating you like a child.
Because children… are not responsible. When you are under a certain age, you simply are not a fully autonomous individual with full access to your own free will. Therefore society has an extra responsibility to look out for children that are being abused, because they cannot even be expected to call out for help, and it is developmentally incorrect to refer to them as response-able individuals.
So children can be, and are, helpless victims of abuse. But when we extend that view to adults, as has often been done in feminist literature aimed at women who have been abused – then we start to disempower adults, and that is something I simply cannot agree with.
The “helpless victim” line of reasoning is sometimes even extended to persons who molest children, and the reasoning is then that they are simply repeating the behaviors that they themselves were subjected to when growing up. However much compassion I may feel for what these persons were exposed to as children, I still hold them responsible for their own actions. They are adults, with access to their free will, and if they choose to molest they should go to jail. And should they be pathological to the extent that they have lost access to their free will, then they have no place in a free society anyhow – they have then become “automated response mechanisms” that are programmed to do damage in society.
Again, I feel deep compassion for people who have been subjected to abuse. However, once we are adults we have choice, and we can be empowered, and as a consequence we have responsibility. I consider holding another person responsible one of the most loving things you can do. Because by doing that you show them that you believe in their ability to make better choices for themselves, and their ability to break free from destructive relationships.
None of this negates the fact that you can help abused people by being a friend, offering them a place to stay, driving them to the police or to a hospital, etc. But if you help people without holding them accountable for their own responses, then you are simply helping them perpetuate their personal tragedy.