Abuse Defined

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In the most general sense, the term 'abuse' describes a particular type
of relationship between two things. An abusive relationship is one
where one thing mistreats or misuses another thing. The important words
in this definition are "mistreat" and "misuse"; they imply that there
is a standard that describes how things should be treated and used, and
that an abuser has violated that standard.

For the most part, only human beings are capable of being abusive,
because only human beings are capable of understanding how things
should be treated in the first place and then violating that standard
anyway. Animals in nature, and nature itself may be very violent and
destructive at times but in an unconscious, irresponsible sort of way;
they cannot act otherwise. Natural violence is not intentional, but all
too often, human violence is.


Various types of abuse are possible, including self-abuse and abuse of
others. From a practical and social point of view, abuse that harms
other people or animals is worse than self-abuse. If people want to
abuse themselves or some inanimate thing they own, they mostly harm
themselves. If, however, they choose to abuse a being (a person or
animal which can feel pain) in a similar manner, they end up harming
that being. This is a very bad thing for several reasons: first because
it harms that other being, and second because it violates a 'social
contract' based on a common understanding, drawn from various
religious, ethical and enlightened government principles and
traditions, that hold out the idea that human beings are not things to
be owned, but rather beings having innate rights and worth as
independent creatures who are all roughly equal (under God). Such
standards help protect people from arbitrary abuse from people who are
more powerful then they are. If it is okay for a strong person to abuse
a relatively weaker one "just because," then it is equally okay for an
even stronger person to abuse that abuser. There would be no end to the
violence under such a scenario. By insisting on the relative equality
and rights of all beings (even for owned animals to some limited
extent), no one being has the right to abuse another, and abusive
violence is minimized. This 'social contract' is an important part of
the basis of civilization itself.

Abusive actions one person makes towards another are generally intended
to control the victim, or to make the victim submit to the power of
that abuser. Such actions are abusive, because it is against the notion
of equality of human worth to say that one person should be able to
control another against the victim's will.

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Keeping these definitions in mind, some actions are easy to identify as
abusive, and some are not. For instance, it seems safe enough to say
that a spouse should never strike his or her spouse, or put him or her
down verbally; such actions are always abusive. It is also easy enough
to say that all instances of forced sexual behavior (particularly where
children are involved) are abusive, and that neglect of children and
dependent elder's well-being is abusive.

It is harder to define abuse in other circumstances, however. It is a
parent's duty to teach their children how to behave properly; to not do
so would be neglectful. It is highly controversial whether corporal
punishment (striking children) is an acceptable method for disciplining
children. It doesn't seem reasonable to say that all instances of
corporal punishment are always abusive. Some parents who use corporal
punishment may do so for very legitimate reasons and under appropriate
circumstances. However, it is equally clear that some parents do cross
the line into true abusiveness with their corporal punishment
practices. Seeking out the consensus opinion of respected others in the
local community and the nation is probably the best means of
determining whether an ambiguously abusive action is abusive or not.

There are individual difference between people in terms of their
comfort level with 'abusive' behaviors as well. For example, some
couples are very volatile with one another; they may scream and yell at
each other and fight constantly. Being subjected to this high-conflict
sort of relationship might be an instance of verbal abuse for some more
sensitive people. However, if both partners in a high-conflict marriage
are adjusted to that high level of conflict and are okay with it, then
their fighting may not actually be abusive at all as applied to their
individual situation. Similarly, people who willingly and consensually
practice sexual bondage in the context of their intimate relationship
are not engaging in abusive behavior, until and unless one partner uses
it against the will of the other partner. The important take home
lesson here is to note that when it is not clear whether a particular
behavior is abusive or not, it is best to fall back on whether that
behavior feels abusive or not. If it feels abusive, it is likely to be
abusive, at least for you, and in any case, you would be justified in
escaping from that abuse. However, the same behavior might not be
abusive for another person.

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