From chapter "Abusers"
A few years ago I asked the great thinker and writer Thomas Berry what transformation would be required for us to have a sustainable sense of self (and by extension a sustainable culture).
He responded, “We have to get beyond the artificial division we’ve created between the human community and the rest of planet. There is only one community, and it lives and dies as a unit. Any harm done to the natural world diminishes the human world, because the human world depends on the natu-ral world not only for its physical supplies but for its psychic development and fulfillment. This is most important, because people talk about the need to destroy the natural world in order to advance the human world. Well, anything that diminishes the wonder and fulfillment we receive from the natural world spoils the human enterprise. We may get a pile of possessions, but it won’t mean much if we can’t go to the mountains or the seacoast, or enjoy the songs of birds or the sights and scents of flowers. What does it do to our children when they cannot enjoy such things?”
He continued, “In back of this, and really what I’m concerned with, is the question of how we experience the universe. My proposal—and this is why a cosmological worldview is so important—is that a cosmological order is what might be called the great liturgy. The human project is validated by ritual insertion into the cosmological order. Our job is to participate in the great hymn of praise that is existence.”
* * *
This culture won’t change on its own. The demands it makes on the natural world and on the humans it exploits won’t diminish until the culture is destroyed. As Bancroft writes, “An abusive man expects catering, and the more positive attention he receives, the more he demands. He never reaches a point where he is satisfied, where he has been given enough. Rather he gets used to the luxurious treatment he is receiving and soon escalates his demands.”
The same is true on the larger scale, as no comforts or elegancies, no feeling of power over another, no accumulation of property can make up for a failure to participate in the great liturgy. It’s an attempt to use increasing amounts of emptiness to plug a great void (or,as R.D.Laing wrote,“How do you plug a void plugging a void?”). It’s an attempt to cure loneliness through power. But loneliness can only be cured through relationship, and relationship is precisely what exploitation and abuse destroy.
There can be no compromise with the insatiable. They’ll ask, then negotiate, then demand, their threat of violence informing all interactions, and in the end they’ll take. But that will not be the end, because they’ll not be satisfied. They’ll begin again, by asking, then negotiating, then demanding, then taking. And then they’ll ask, negotiate, demand, take, until there’s nothing left. And yet they’ll keep on pushing.
Because Bancroft’s book is in some ways self-help, he puts all this slightly differently: “Objectification is a critical reason why an abuser tends to get worse over time. As his conscience adapts to one level of cruelty—or violence—he builds to the next. By depersonalizing his partner, the abuser protects himself from the natural human emotions of guilt and empathy, so that he can sleep at night with a clear conscience. He distances himself so far from her humanity that her feelings no longer count, or simply cease to exist. These walls tend to grow over time, so that after a few years in a relationship my clients can reach a point where they feel no more guilt over degrading or threatening their partners than you or I would feel after angrily kicking a stone in the driveway.”
Or perhaps he means that abusers would feel no more guilt over threaten-ing their partners than civilized humans would feel blasting stones from a quarry, or damming a river, or deforesting a hillside. Stones, rivers, trees, forests, their feelings, far beyond not counting, have within this culture long since ceased to exist.
* * *
Thomas Berry said to me, “We have lost touch with the natural order of things. For example, which day of the workweek it is may be more important to many of us than the great transition moments in the seasonal cycles. And which hour of the day it is—will I get to work on time? Will I avoid rush hour traffic? Will I get to watch my favorite television program?—may be more important to us than the transitional moments in the diurnal cycles. We have forgotten the great spiritual import of these moments of transition. The dawn is mystical, a very special moment for the human to experience the wonder and depth of fulfillment in the sacred. The same is true of nightfall. And it’s true when we pass from consciousness to sleep, where our subconscious comes forward. That this is a special moment of intimacy is particularly apparent to children. They often know that the moment of falling asleep is the magic or mystical moment when there is a presence. Parents talk to their children in a very special way at this time. It’s very tender, sensitive, quiet. It’s the great transitional moment in our day-night cycle.
“There are magical moments in the yearly cycle, too. There is the winter solstice, the moment when the transformation takes place between a declining and ascending sun. It’s a moment of death in nature, a moment when everything is reborn. We have lost touch with this intimate experience.
“In the springtime, humans are meant to wonder and to ceremonially observe succession, leading to the fulfillment of summer, and the beginning of the movement again toward death. At the harvest there is another time of gratitude and celebration. I think the Iroquois thanksgiving ceremony is one of the greatest festivals in the religious traditions of humankind. Different elements are remembered and thanked: the water, the rain, the wind, the fruitfulness of the earth, the trees. The Iroquois articulate fifteen or more specialized powers that humans need to commune with and be grateful for.
“All of this is cosmological. Such experience evokes a sense of wonder at the majesty of things. We participate in the world of the sacred, the world of mystery, the world of fulfillment. To recognize our fulfillment in these moments is to know what it is to be human.
“We can say the same for places as for moments. To be fully human is to fully experience the spectacular formations of the planet: particular mountains, particular rivers, certain rock structures.
“We no longer do this. We don’t experience the natural world surrounding us. We deny ourselves our deepest delight by not participating in the dawn, the dusk, the solstice, the springtime.”
* * *
Unfortunately, abusers don’t particularly care about what they’re losing. Bancroft writes about this, too: “It is true that partner abusers lose intimacy because of their abuse, since true closeness and abuse are mutually exclusive. However, they rarely experience this as much of a loss. Either they find their intimacy through close emotional connections with friends or relatives, as many of my clients do, or they are people for whom intimacy is neither a goal nor a value (as is also true of many nonabusers). You can’t miss something that you aren’t interested in having.”
This transposes easily to the larger scale with only a few substitutions. “It is true that the civilized lose intimacy with their landbase because of their exploitation of it, since true closeness and exploitation are mutually exclusive. However, they rarely experience this as much of a loss. Either they find their intimacy through close emotional connections [sic] with other humans, or they are people for whom intimacy with the land is neither a goal nor a value (as is true of nearly all of the civilized). You can’t miss something that you aren’t interested in having.”
I’ve heard many environmentalists state that if only they could get CEOs and politicians out of their boardrooms and legislative halls (or out of their pent-houses and vacation homes) long enough to breathe clean forest air and to feel duff beneath their feet, long enough to stop thinking about stock prices and start thinking about spotted owls, that the CEOs would undergo magical transformations and suddenly no longer want to destroy the homes of their new-found forest friends.
It ain’t gonna happen. This false hope ignores many things. It ignores the fact that when Europeans first encountered a wildly fecund North America, they were not entranced by it, they did not fall in love with it, they feared and hated it, and they began to dismantle it, a dismantling that continues its acceleration to this day. It ignores the fact that many loggers spend much of their adult lives in forests, claiming to love these forests they’re destroying. It ignores the fact that CEOs and politicians, like other abusers, are financially and socially well-rewarded for maintaining their disconnected state. It ignores the fact that if some individual does have an epiphany, he will simply be replaced and the destruction will continue apace. And most of all it ignores the fact that, as mentioned before, the culture’s problem lies in the belief that controlling and abusing the natural world is justifiable.
* * *
Where does this leave us?
Well, if you agree with my thesis—which I think I’ve more than amply supported—that the motivations, dynamics, and damage of abuse play out not only in the bedrooms of little girls and boys, not only in the black eyes and bruised and torn vaginas of women, not only in the fragmented and fearful psyches of the traumatized, but also in blasted streams and dammed rivers, poisoned oceans and extirpated species, and in enslaved, domesticated, or destroyed humans (and nonhumans, and landscapes), then it means that asking, cajoling, or even sending lovingkindness™ to abusers is at best a waste of time. Bancroft again: “You cannot get an abuser to change by begging or pleading. The only abusers who change are the ones who become willing to accept the consequences of their actions.” And yet again: “You cannot, I am sorry to say, get an abuser to work on himself by pleading, soothing, gently leading, getting friends to persuade him, or using any other nonconfrontational method. I have watched hundreds of women attempt such an approach without success. The way you can help him change is to demand that he do so, and settle for nothing less.”
Let’s apply this on the larger scale: We cannot get large-scale abusers to stop exploiting others by pleading, soothing, gently leading, getting people to persuade them, or using any other nonconfrontational method. It won’t work.
But you knew that already.
Bancroft continues, “It is also impossible to persuade an abusive man to change by convincing him that he would benefit, because he perceives the benefits of controlling his partner as vastly outweighing the losses. This is part of why so many men initially take steps to change their abusive behavior but then return to their old ways. There is another reason why appealing to his self-interest doesn’t work. The abusive man’s belief that his own needs should come ahead of his partner’s is at the core of the problem. Therefore when anyone, including therapists, tells an abusive man that he should change because that’s what’s best for him, they are inadvertently feeding his selfish focus on himself: You cannot simultaneously contribute to a problem and solve it.”
Let’s once again explicitly make the connection to the larger scale. It is impossible to persuade the civilized to change by convincing them that they would benefit and simultaneously allowing them to remain within the framework and reward system of civilization, because the civilized perceive the benefits of controlling those around them (including humans and nonhumans; including the land, air, water; including genetic structures; including molecular structures) as vastly outweighing the losses. This is part of why so many of the civilized initially take steps—or at least mouth rhetoric and pretend to take steps—to change their abusive behavior but then return to their exploitative ways. There is another reason why appealing to the self-interest of the civilized doesn’t work (apart from the fact that the entire economic system, indeed all of civilization, is based on this limited and unsustainable sense of self which leads people to believe it’s in one’s self-interest to exploit others, indeed, which causes it to be, within this limited sense of self, actually in one’s self-interest to exploit others): the belief of the civilized that their own needs should come ahead of the landbase’s is at the core of the problem. Therefore when people, including activists, tell a civilized person—for example, a CEO or politician—that he should change because that’s what’s best for him, they are inadvertently feeding his selfish focus on himself: You cannot simultaneously contribute to a problem and solve it.
Let’s go one more time. Bancroft: “An abuser doesn’t change because he feels guilty or gets sober or finds God. He doesn’t change after seeing the fear in his children’s eyes or feeling them drift away from him. It doesn’t suddenly dawn on him that his partner deserves better treatment. Because of his self-focus, combined with the many rewards he gets from controlling you, an abuser changes only when he has to, so the most important element in creating a context for change in an abuser is placing him in a situation where he has no other choice. Otherwise, it is highly unlikely that he will ever change his behavior.”
Pay careful attention. No other choice.
No, really. Pay careful attention. No other choice.
No, now really pay attention. No other choice.
Let’s transpose this to the larger scale. Those who are killing the planet won’t change because they feel guilty or drop their addiction to consumerism or find God, or Nature. They don’t change after seeing the fear in factory farmed or vivi-sected animal’s eyes (or in the eyes of the poor) or feeling wild creatures drift away from them. It doesn’t suddenly dawn on them that the landbase deserves better treatment. Because of their self-focus, combined with the many rewards they get from controlling those around them, these abusers change only when they have to, so the most important element in creating a context for change in those who are killing the planet is to place them in situations where they have no other choice. Otherwise, it is highly unlikely that they will ever change their behavior.
No other choice.
* * *
The answer that allowed me to move past the question of whether abusers believe their lies is this: it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter at all. What matters is stopping them.
* * *
Last night I dreamt I was on a ship with thousands of other people. A few men gathered us into a huge ballroom. We knew, even though they never said a word, that they were going to kill us. We huddled against walls or crouched on the floor, waiting to die. The men had guns, but I wondered why we didn’t rush them, didn’t fight back. There was no way they could kill us all unless we chose not to fight, in which case we would all surely die. Yet there we stayed.
I got up. The men with guns didn’t notice. The captives who huddled or crouched hissed at me to get back on the floor. I was endangering them, they said, by standing up. They’ll notice us, they said, and get upset. Upset? I thought. They herded us here with guns. They take us three at a time to another room. We hear gunshots. They come to get three more. And you’re worried that I’ll endanger us?
I wanted to fight but couldn’t do it alone. I knew none of those on the floor would join me. They were all going to die. I made my way slowly to a door, then left the room, went down a hall, and emerged on the deck. A woman swam through the ocean toward the boat. She climbed the side. She was beautiful. She was nude. We didn’t speak. We knew what we each had to do. We looked at each other for a moment before she leapt back into the ocean. I went room to room on the ship, searching for people who had not already entered the ballroom.
I half awoke, then lay there in the moonlight, slowly shifting focus from the dream and all it meant to a muffled sound above my head. The sound and its meaning became less fuzzy, then more clear, till I knew the sound was wings fluttering against glass. I sat up, turned around, reached up, and cupped a moth in my hands. I used my thumb to open a window and let it out. I went back to sleep, back to the dream.
The woman swam again to the ship, climbed aboard. She smiled. She had brought help. We were ready. We knew what we had to do. We knew what we wanted to do.
I woke up.