Many people have found themselves eyewitnesses to some kind of abuse, be it physical or emotional, inflicted against a spouse, partner, or child. It can be difficult to know what to do, or whether to do anything at all.
Chris Morin, a member of the Cape Cod chapter of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, spoke on the subject at a gathering of WILPF members and supporters on Dec. 6, at a home in Yarmouth.
Bystanders are often reluctant to intervene, for a variety of reasons. “You’re afraid to step in,” Morin said. “You need to watch out for your own safety.” Fear of provoking the aggressor into additional abuse against the victim is another legitimate concern, and one that will often lead the victim of abuse to deny the reality of the situation. “Many times…the person that’s being abused will say nothing’s happening.”
But intervention does not necessarily mean confrontation, Morin said, nor does it have to add further conflict to an already tense situation. Something as simple as interrupting to ask for the time, or some other bit of innocuous information, can sometimes be enough to defuse an argument, before it becomes abusive. “What you want to do is break that momentum,” Morin said. “It takes the pressure off the victim, and even the perpetrator.”
Morin works to educate people on how to prevent abuse not just on an individual level, but by challenging societal assumptions that can subtly encourage abusive behavior. “Bystander prevention is about looking at social norms.” Images of power and violence can convince some that such behavior is acceptable, Morin argued. “As community members, what can we do about that?”
Interruption is a potentially powerful technique here, as well. Morin said taking the time to think about, and comment on, media depictions of violence, misogyny, and other expressions of abusive attitudes, can prevent the process of unconsciously absorbing them. “A big part of this intervention is about the education.”
Many are reluctant to do this, too, Morin said. “There’s a part of us that’s afraid to speak, because it might not sit well with others.” But overcoming that fear is essential to undermining what Morin sees as the root causes of abuse. “Part of this work is about standing up, being that one person who stands up.”
That effort should begin as early as possible, Morin said, when people are at their most impressionable, and their most susceptible to peer pressure. “Children don’t have a voice,” she said, “unless there are adults in their lives that understand.” A child may witness abuse every day, at school or at home, and be too afraid to come forward, or, worse, simply view it as normal human behavior. “What we need to do more of is empowering that child to stand up.”
At the same time, Morin said, those who abuse are seldom beyond education, and redemption. “What we do as a society is, we focus on the victim,” she said. “We never ask why the perpetrator perpetrates.”
Understanding what motivates abusive behavior is a key part of stopping it. “Bullies have issues,” said Morin. “We should be talking about, ‘What’s going on in your life?’”
Individuals can also help stem the tide of violence by encouraging their elected representatives to enact tougher penalties against abusers, and close loopholes that often lead allow those perpetrators to go unpunished. WILPF is working in support of two pieces of legislation currently in the Massachusetts State Legislature. One would redefine strangulation in cases of domestic violence as a felony, rather than the misdemeanor it is often treated as. The other would eliminate the “accord and satisfaction” standard by which cases of abuse are often dismissed, at the victim’s behest, even over the objections of prosecutors.
Those two potential laws are just a small part of the nationwide effort to end abuse, Morin said, an effort that advocates hope will one day force them to move on to other causes. “There’s a very big prevention movement in this country, and there should be,” she said. “Our job is to work our way out of a job.”