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I think I was at some kind of activist type thing when I first heard the phrase “hurt people hurt people”. And for months (years?) this phrase has been swimming around in my head and I finally understand why its a really fucked up perspective. Like… I understand (i think) the intention behind the phrase, which I believe is making a statement about abuse culture and how cycles of abuse/harm are perpetuated…

And. I don’t think I even need to get into the general awfulness behind the idea that abused people (often/always) become abusers ourselves. This is a popular, received wisdom about how cycles of abuse are perpetuated and transmitted via generations. Except… that it’s totally wrong. And really fucked up. But other ppl have talked about this and I won’t get into this aspect of the issue too much.

I want to talk about, rather, the context in which I heard the phrase. One on level, one might construe this being an activist truism as a way to discuss the phenomenon of ‘horizontal’ or ‘lateral’ aggression. You know, that thing wherein people who have shared experiences of oppression harm each other?

The thing is, is that I don’t understand the point of the statement. Or rather, what I can understand is fucked up. To me, it appears to be explaining why things like horizontal aggression happen. But as a way to encourage understanding and (ultimately) forgiveness. If we can understand that a person who just hurt us did so because they’ve also been hurt, then we can reach a place of forgiveness and healing. And, thus, break cycles of abuse and/or harm.

Of course, this puts the onus on victims to break the cycle of abuse. Which is precisely why my brain just sort of… fizzles out when trying to comprehend why this is considered a viable strategy for dealing with harm within communities. Or even for understanding it. Or as a way to resolve it. It simply isn’t something that works. It isn’t the job of victims or the ppl who’ve been harmed to repair the relationship. Or forgive the person who harmed them. It doesn’t matter why a person harms another, just that they did.

I mean. Sure, yes, this isn’t an absolute thing. And I think there is some amount of compassion to have for people who’ve been harmed and go on to harm others. But I really REALLY don’t think that this compassion needs to be present or felt by the harmed individual. As a general principle, sure, I can understand ‘hurt people hurt people’ as a thing. But as it applies to actual incidents of harm? And having it extend to an expectation that a victim understand/feel compassion for the person who harmed them? Suddenly, I don’t like it.

And the fact that this is something I’ve heard in spaces that were nominally victim-centred really troubles me. Since this doesn’t really support such a principle, both in the abstract and with regards to concrete situations.

It also makes me realize that one of the biggest problems I have with activist groups, I’m now realizing, is that most of them have zero actual processes or ideas about how to navigate and resolve inter-personal conflicts.

Like. We have, in general, a lot of discourse around abuse and whatnot. And this is great. (Although, imperfect as abuse remains a really big problem in all communities). But. I see very little about conflict resolution and dealing with hurt that isn’t abuse. As a general principle (from my understanding) what separates abuse from plain harm, is regularity and/or patterns. Abuse is repeated harm directed towards a person. It is a pattern of behaviour and action. And maybe I’ve misunderstood or misrepresented the distinction. All I’m trying to mark here is a distinction between abuse and harm caused in a singular, interpersonal interaction.

I’m talking about the sort of… almost mundane harm caused by the fact that we are all imperfect humans with feelings. The harm, of course, isn’t what is mundane but the fact of it. The harm is real and something we need to deal with. But I’m realizing more and more that we don’t have the tools, language, or skills to really address situations like this. Or at least not beyond what we learn as kids, which mostly seems to be ‘kiss and makeup’ – which is also really fucked up.

‘hurt ppl hurt ppl’ also seems like one way that we are told to navigate the problem of non-abusive interpersonal harm1. But it replicates the problem of putting the onus of reconciliation (if at all possible) on the victim. Which isn’t, at all, the way to go. We know this from abuse culture. And, honestly, the way a lot of people react to being informed about how they’ve harmed another person quickly devolves into abuse (esp. gaslighting). I’m definitely not marking a clear and uniform distinction here because it all depends on the victim’s perspective and feelings about the harm done to them.

And, honestly? I think a lot of activist-type circles and groups (fuck, any kind of group) would be a lot less toxic if we actually had not only mitigation or prevention strategies for non-abusive harm (which are common) but ways to adequately address it. And the sad thing is, is that I just don’t know what any of these strategies are. My usual response to non-abusive harm is to completely withdraw from the group and/or person who did it. But self-isolation really isn’t a workable or ‘good’ strategy for dealing with non-abusive interpersonal harm. Except that I don’t know how to do anything else. And I haven’t really seen any workable or feasible strategies discussed. And shit like ‘hurt ppl hurt ppl’ doesn’t help me at all.