Social enablers of abuse
- Moving the line is about personal choices, but these choices can be formed or enabled by wider social influences.
- Social norms are the unwritten rules of behaviour in a group.
- Power imbalances enable abuse because the more powerful person believes they can get away with it.
- Gender norms are one place where social norms and power intersect, as they are often used to limit the personal freedom of entire groups of people
- Technology enables positive behaviour, but also abuse.
- Alcohol and other drugs are an enabler, not a cause, of abuse.
- Something all these enablers have in common is encouraging to see people as objects, animals or aliens.
- We can challenge social enablers of abuse and make a more caring society for everyone.
Why does someone move the line?
Moving the line is often about personal choice: a mover wants something from another person, and they take it. They might dismiss, ignore or not care what the other person wants—or maybe they do care, but they convince themselves that the other person wants the same thing, when really they are uncomfortable or unhappy.
But it’s not always completely personal—sometimes there are wider social influences that encourage someone to move the line.
This can lead us into some difficult territory, because we are social animals and we like to fit in—but how can we follow the Field Model if the culture around us enables and encourages disrespect and abuse?
It’s worth noticing these influences, because they give us clues about environments that enable abuse, and they highlight attitudes we should try to change.
In any social group, new members look at established members to see which behaviours and beliefs are encouraged and rewarded, and which are punished, and then they behave accordingly.
Sometimes one social group will hold beliefs and standards that encourage disrespect and abuse towards another group.
For instance, you might have a group of high-performing male athletes who collectively feel like it’s okay to bully smaller and less athletic men, and sexually dominate women.
In a group like this, members might feel pressure to bully or dominate someone else as a way to cement their status and belonging, or they might find justification for venting their own angry or aggressive impulses on sanctioned victims.
Disrespectful social norms are probably one of the most common enablers for abuse.
Power imbalances can encourage abuse, simply because the less powerful person is more likely to submit to pressure fearing the consequences of resisting, and the more powerful person feels like they can get away with applying it.
For instance, an older boss pressures a younger subordinate for a kiss at a work party.
The boss maybe feels desirable and attractive because they have power, and they are used to directing and demanding at work and feel fine doing the same for a kiss. Meanwhile the subordinate is freaking out but doesn’t want to make a scene, risk their job, deal with the awkwardness of a conflict, so they go along with it and regret it.
There are all sorts of sources of power in relationships, and in the wrong hands that power can easily be abused. Even in the right hands power is a risk—there is research that suggests that power can go to almost anyone’s head and make them less empathetic towards the people with less power.
Both social norms and power can intersect around gender.
Different groups have different social norms around what men and women can do and say, how they can dress, who they can socialise with—as well as beliefs around how men and women should think and feel about certain things.
When these social norms frame one gender as subordinate to another or seek to limit their acceptable thoughts or feelings, then they can encourage gender-based abuse.
For instance, a gender norm in a relationship might be that the man should be the primary breadwinner and should be entitled to direct the affairs of the family, while the woman should be a domestic worker, look after the smooth running of the household and ensure that everyone’s peculiar needs are taken care of.
This model could work fine if both people were able to freely agree on the division of labour, but if one of the members doesn’t agree, then the couple can wind up fighting, and the social norm can make the status quo partner feel entitled to punish the other partner to keep them in line.
Similarly, we often have imbalances in power between the genders. An obvious example is that men are typically larger and stronger than women, which can lead men to feel like they can physically dominate women, or lead women to be more submissive because they fear violence or aggression from men.
A more subtle example is that women tend to wind up with less financial power than men, because they often lose earnings when they take time off to have children, and because they tend to be paid less than men overall. In an abusive relationship, this financial imbalance can be exploited by the man to hold power over the woman.
Technology is an enabler of all sorts of positive behaviour, but it can also enable abuse. For example:
- Technology provides anonymity which enables people to act abusively without fear of punishment.
- Technology lets us act over any distance, meaning people can abuse and harass people on the other side of the world.
- And social media gives us access to intimate details about other people—but without any of the care of a genuine respectful relationship, those details can be turned into weapons of abuse.
Alcohol and other drugs
Alcohol is often associated with harassment, violence and abuse, but it is not a direct cause.
Alcohol doesn’t make anyone violent or aggressive. It reduces our ability to do complex physical or mental tasks, so when drunk we tend to act on simple emotional impulses.
If you hold basically disrespectful beliefs about other people—based on gender, race, whatever—then being drunk might make you feel more comfortable acting out on existing abusive or aggressive thoughts or impulses.
Seeing people as objects, animals or aliens
Something all these enablers have in common is they encourage one person to see another person as an other—as some kind of object, animal or alien.
Whether it’s social norms, a power imbalance, a gender norm, the distancing effect of technology—the common enabler is the way these influences can encourage you to ignore someone else’s rich inner world, to not see them as a complex person but instead see them as something simple and limited, not worthy of full rights or respect.
Challenging social enablers of abuse
While there might be large-scale social enablers of abuse, the good news is that you can confront and challenge them simply through your own personal actions and beliefs.
As a bystander, it can be hard to step in and push back on a social norm, but you can challenge the status quo through even small actions, such as refusing to follow the existing patterns, and voicing your concerns and recruiting allies.