The Figure of the Abuser

The figure of the abuser is useful.

In my previous post,  I mentioned how when members of staff are identified as harassers they quickly become strangers, even foreigners, as inexpressive rather than expressive of the values of the organisation. An organization can then articulate the following statement as if it was performative: “we do not tolerate sexual harassment.” Organisations are only called upon to make such statements because they have tolerated sexual harassment: when their tolerance threatens to come out, it has to be denied. Everyone knows that these statements are only made because they are empty and have no force; even those who make them.

The figure of the abuser as a stranger or foreigner is thus useful to an organisation, as well as a profession. It is useful to the system to present an abuse of a system as an aberration or an exception. An abuse of a system is part of the system. Those who abuse power can do what they do because of how they are enabled; networks can come alive, contacts can be drawn upon, because of who is already there; what is already there.

Simply put: some can get away with ensuring they get their way. Already.

My project on complaint is not specifically about sexual abuse, sexual harassment or sexual misconduct although these problems come up because of what is brought up. Many complainants are making complaints about abusive behaviour. My project is about listening to those who challenge a system. In making a complaint, you might not think of yourself as challenging a system. But a system is what you come up against because you are making a complaint. This is why those who make complaints become diversity workers even if they did not think of complaining as diversity work from the outset.

The idea that the abuser is a stranger is part of the wider discourse of stranger danger. Stranger danger is dangerous. It is dangerous to those who are recognised as strangers, so often people of colour, black and brown bodies; those who are passing by at the edges of social experience; those who are deemed to be loitering, lurking, lacking a legitimate purpose. It is dangerous to be seen when you are seen as dangerous.

Stranger danger is also dangerous because it locates danger in the outsider: most who are endangered are endangered when they are home, because they are at home. They are most endangered by those with whom they have ties; by intimates not extimates; friends and family not strangers.

We can think of institutions as homes; places where we reside, where some are assumed to belong and others not. The location of danger in an outsider is how the institution appears as safe and protective when it is not. And abuse can usually happen because of ties that already exist, because of intimacies and connections, which means: those who abuse the power given to them by organisations might not appear as such because an abuser is assumed as a stranger.

The figure of the abuser is also useful to those who abuse power. In fact, many abuses of power are enabled because an abuser does not appear.

I think we need to know from this.

Feminism: knowing from this.

My study of complaint has already taught me so much about how power works. It has taught me how abusive behaviour is understood as a way of framing a situation (rather than as a situation). Those who identify an abuse are understood as having a point of view.  That might seem generous; but in fact it is not. Abuse is narrated as a conflict between sides; your side; my side. It is a way of neutralizing the situation because sides are assumed to be equal; to become a side is to be given the right to be treated as equal.

The idea of sides is how dominance becomes a view.

The one who is identified as abusive is understood as having a point of view. So in one case in my study, a head of department refused to discipline those identified as abusive because he said it would be “taking sides.” The abusive behavior I should add included threats of physical violence made because a complaint had already been made: comments included “grasses get slashes.” Such comments are in effect defended by being treated as a side, as what you cannot come done upon without affirming one person’s point of view over another’s.

An abuse of power becomes not simply a point of view but is enabled or reproduced by being treated as a point of view. I would add: the presentation of abuse as point of view is how domination works in general. Domination does not work by appearing as domination. Domination works by presenting a dominant view as just another view (that someone has the right to express). This is why the socially and politically dominant present themselves as discursively marginal: as having to fight a consensus to articulate a viewpoint. This is how fascism works, how fascism comes to have a hold: by articulating itself as a viewpoint that has to be fought for alongside other viewpoints. Fascism becomes dominant at that very moment it is given legitimacy as “just another point of view,” which liberal institutions must defend in defending themselves.

Hear from this: a refusal to listen to a complaint can be part of a liberal defence.

Those who abuse power are the same those who appear as portraits on the wall. I mean by this: those who abuse power already have a portrait; get closer, and you can see their point of view. They are benevolent; they feel bad; they are complex: they didn’t mean anything by it; they are full of meaning.  It is because of past abuse that we have already been given such portraits of abuse, that is, a world can be built from that point of view; to be sympathetic to such a viewpoint is to support how sympathy has already been allocated.

The complainers become unsympathetic; mean. When too much threatens to come out, other words will quickly get floated about: words like panic; words like punishment (1). He is implied to be a victim of a moral consensus; of identity politics; feminism; even neoliberalism. One person testified “my complaint was called neoliberal.” This was a complaint about sexual harassment by a member of staff.

What a calling. You can hear the implication: as if complaining is colluding with management; becoming an administrative accomplice, behaving like a consumer or even a market (2).

Those who complain about power are assumed to be holding the power. This inflation of the power of those who challenge power is how power is defended; he becomes a minority.

How could they; how mean, how lacking complexity! It is much queerer than that!

Hey: it isn’t that complicated, and it isn’t that queer. Unless you take the universal as point of view, which is how something, somebody, appears complicated.

Our task is to make it simple because we have learned to disguise something by complicating something.

Power: withholds itself by holding itself. This is how abuses of power can happen even when someone does not appear to have that much power: it can just be implied that you received that scholarship as a favour. An implication of debt can be sufficient to make someone indebted. An implication is still enabled by a position. Those who abuse the power given to them by virtue of a position speak eloquently in the language of favours; of what they can do for you if you do this for them.

The for is presented as equal, sweet, nice, honey, stick to me, honey: do this for me, honey, because I did this for you, honey.

An abuse of power might only be experienced as abuse (or harassment) when you do not go along with something. Maybe you could not start with this not. The very word  “unwelcome” is used as definitional in sexual harassment: an unwelcome advance. If you are a student, it can be hard not to welcome the professor. Your advancement might depend on being welcoming. Here’s the professor; hello professor. Everyone else seems to accept it: so what do you do?

You might hesitate. And then you might be persuaded to be more welcoming. Abuse often works through techniques of persuasion: of trying to persuade someone to enter into something. If you are persuaded, you might receive some benefits; it might even work for some time. But being persuaded often involves becoming a stranger to oneself; you only have to persuade yourself when you are not persuaded. Making a complaint in such a situation is very painful and difficult; identifying an abuse of power often means feeling complicit for not having identified it before.

A complaint can feel like guilt.

That is how power works.

When complicity is required a use is an abuse.

And: those who abuse power often present themselves not as forceful or as dominating but as needy. This is another reason it can be hard to make a complaint or to identify an abuse as an abuse: because of the sympathy you are asked to feel and that you might even come to feel. Those who abuse the power given to them by organisations often create a portrait of themselves: they might create the impression of being a victim of a hostile organisation, as in need of protection, or they might present themselves as suffering, and in need of love and affection. The creation of an impression of being needy is how a complaint is judged in advance as unkind; as hurting someone who is already fragile, as depriving someone of what they need to survive.

A complaint: it would topple him over.

The dominant are always near the edge.

How could you; how would you.

In making a complaint, you become unsympathetic.

We need to become unsympathetic.

We need to topple the system.

This post is dedicated to the students fighting fiercely to topple the system.

I hear you. I am with you.





(1). I have learned that to make a complaint about an abuse of power is viewed as a desire for punishment and as a failure to mediate; as a refusal to “talk through differences.” In reflecting more on the problem of how a complaint is perceived as punishment, I hope to return to my engagement with the literature on restorative justice from the conclusion of The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004).

(2). See my post, Against Students, for some relevant observations on the use of the figure of the consuming student.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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8 Responses to The Figure of the Abuser

  1. Rae Johnson says:

    Thank you, Sara. A beautifully articulated unpacking of how and why speaking up against abuse within oppressive social systems is such a mind f*ck. As in, “Why doesn’t this feel empowering?”

  2. Rory Allen says:

    Excellent analysis of abuse and the means used to conceal it. Rings very true. The argument “we don’t tolerate abuse, so any abuser is not a proper member of our organisation” is a case of the “No true Scotsman” fallacy, which is widely used in other contexts of prejudice.

  3. Pingback: Academia, Sexual Harassment and a Slice of Buttered Toast with Tea | The Writer in the World

  4. Thank you. #youtoo.

  5. Simon says:

    “Those who abuse the power given to them by organisations often create a portrait of themselves: they might create the impression of being a victim of a hostile organisation, as in need of protection, or they might present themselves as suffering, and in need of love and affection.”
    This is true for so many professors, who think of themselves as ‘changing scholarship’ or ‘progressive’. It is also true that they sometimes indeed fight against hostile structures within the academy. But for them to ask for ‘sympathy’ (a form of intimacy) from students, lower faculty asf to me feels like a violation, an abuse of very real and material privilege and power. Many students are changing scholarship, teaching, and academic work in the same radical ways, within discursive and material security, without a safety net. No sympathy is ever given to them. They are forced to feel and bear the weight of the ‘innovative professor’s’ sense of ‘professional vulnerability’ (for lack of a better term).
    Thank you again, Sara.

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