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Perspective: Don’t call it ‘abuse’ unless it’s abuse

Words like ‘grooming’ and ‘trauma’ are being stretched to unrecognizable dimensions

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Illustration by Michelle Budge, Deseret News

Last week, I heard a story of someone who spoke of healing from the “trauma” of growing up in a religious community — although the person hailed from a relatively happy family. A few days later, I spoke with a woman who had been sexually abused throughout much of her childhood. She described this dark and horrific period of her life with the same word: “trauma.” 

How can the same word be used to describe such vastly different experiences? 

The dichotomy clearly isn’t unique to expressions of trauma. In past decades, words like “empowerment” and “dialogue” have been applied to a wide variety of activities, including distinctly disempowering and anti-dialogic efforts. (Even Syria’s Bashar Assad called for “dialogue” with opposition leaders as his security forces “continued to kill and arrest demonstrators.”) The definition of “racist” has significantly expanded in the past decade, and “hatred” is now applied to a wide spectrum of acts, ranging from a physical assault on someone of a different race or sexual orientation, to refusing to use someone’s preferred pronouns.

In most cases, the words getting stretched to unrecognizable dimensions carry unique social power. For instance, if someone can publicly claim to be a facilitator of “dialogue” or “empowerment,” there’s a distinct cultural cachet that accompanies the label. Likewise, to be labeled a racist, hater, extremist or abuser can spell ominous things in our digitally interconnected world where reputations can crumble overnight.    

Which brings us back to the word trauma — and the power that comes from labeling an experience as “traumatic” or “abusive.”

After far too many centuries of violence and abuse taking place in families with inadequate efforts to stop it, there is much to celebrate about a justice system and #MeToo societal conversation now attuned to take allegations seriously. If bias exists, it probably ought to lean toward believing victims and taking their accounts seriously.  

But believing people who say they are victims of abuse doesn’t mean ignoring or minimizing everyone else. As even a cursory reading of the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard defamation trial confirms, there is often another side of abuse allegations that ought to be heard — especially if we’re committed to establishing the full truth.  

Years ago, I was asked to write a character statement for a friend going through a custody battle who had alleged abuse against her husband in their dissolving marriage. I agreed but felt it important to speak with the husband prior to finalizing the letter. After doing so, I couldn’t write the same statement. While disappointed by many of his words and actions, I came away forced to conclude that he wasn’t a “violent” or “abusive” man.

The jury may feel differently about Depp, based on testimony this week from his former wife. Regardless, even the hint of association can be enough to tarnish reputations and careers — as Depp claims Heard’s 2018 op-ed in The Washington Post did to his own.

Only so much can be learned from a messy case like this with accusations of violence from both parties, especially given their otherworldly lives. (A columnist for the New York Post pointed out how distant Depp’s life is from ordinary Americans by virtue of Depp lamenting the sale of his yacht to J.K. Rowling.)

But even for nonmegastars, these radioactive modifiers can be used to advance aims that have nothing to do with accountability for criminal violence.

Last spring, Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy was quoted in The New York Times about how activists have learned to “deploy skillfully the language of ‘hurt’”— as in “I don’t care what the speaker’s intentions were, what the speaker said has hurt my feelings and ought, therefore, to be prohibited.”

New York University professor Jonathan Haidt often speaks of 2014 as a turning point where he saw students move from protesting unpopular views to claiming that being exposed to these views was “psychologically damaging” and that such speech ought to be equated with “violence.”

Similarly, Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at Brookings, has said, “activists have figured out that they can have disproportionate influence by claiming to be physically endangered and psychologically traumatized by speech that offends them.”

In an essay titled “If Everything Is ‘Trauma,’ Is Anything?” Jessica Bennett cites philosopher Natalie Wynn as saying, “All pain is ‘harm.’ All ‘harm’ is ‘trauma.’ All ‘trauma’ comes from someone who is an ‘abuser.’ It’s as if people can’t articulate disagreement or hardships without using this language.”

Can you really blame them? Given the immediate results these words elicit, why wouldn’t people use these words if they can? Excessive hyperbole, of course, is employed by both the left and the right. We’re now seeing the highly charged language of “grooming” misused by people concerned about public school teachers talking to children about gender identity.

They are right to be concerned and raise serious questions. But invoking the florid image of an abuser grooming victims effectively ends all good-faith efforts to seek deeper understanding and foster healthy dialogue.

How does any of this sound to the numerous men and women who have experienced the terrible fruits of real grooming and actual abuse? That’s also what I wonder when hearing people speak of the “trauma” of being raised in a devoted religious home by a family of faith.  

No question, some people have experienced real trauma and abuse at the hands of religious parents. But Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk, a leading expert on trauma, defines true trauma as something that exceeds and overwhelms normal capacities to cope and endure. That’s clearly not how many people are using the term popularly anymore. Similar to how “depression” is sometimes used to characterize normal experiences of sadness, we are witnessing what scholar Nick Haslam calls “trauma creep” — an increasingly expanded set of more normal experiences falling under that label.

By all means, let’s call violent what is violence. And hateful what is truly hateful, and abusive what is truly abusive. But if something isn’t actually “abusive” or “traumatic,” maybe we should stop pretending that it is.

Jacob Hess is the editor in chief at Public Square Magazine and served on the board of the National Coalition of Dialogue and Deliberation. He has worked to promote liberal-conservative understanding since the publication of “You’re Not as Crazy as I Thought (But You’re Still Wrong)” with Phil Neisser. With Carrie Skarda, Kyle Anderson and Ty Mansfield, Hess also authored “The Power of Stillness: Mindful Living for Latter-day Saints.”