The Abuser's Tools Will Never Dismantle The Abuser's System
We must change the frame of children's activism.
In her famous essay The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, black feminist thinker Audre Lorde argues that you cannot change an oppressive system by adhering to the rules of that oppressive system. The frame of the system is designed to protect the system. This applies not just to the issues Audre Lorde was writing about in 1984, but to the present struggle against genital cutting.
What is the frame that the system demands survivors of genital cutting adhere to? In a word, perfectionism. Survivors of genital cutting are expected to be perfect representatives of their victimhood. Survivors are expected to have an academic citation or study for every claim they make. Claims which cannot be cited, like the survivor’s own feelings, are dismissed by those engaged in systemic pedophilia. Survivors are expected to protect the fragility of their abusers. If at any point the survivor’s speech offends someone engaged in oppression, their offending speech will be used to engage in epistemic violence against the survivor. It may even be archived, screenshotted, and brought up in every future discussion involving that survivor.
The survivors these expectations are placed on have real trauma. There are already major barriers to men speaking about their feelings, survivors speaking about sexual assault, and anyone speaking about pedophilia or sexual assault that occurred in childhood. Survivors often have no social support or support understanding their feelings. Most therapists and healers are socialized into the same genital cutting culture that harmed survivors. Survivors are usually average people dealing with intense emotional issues and systemic oppression, not media-trained spokespeople.
The expectation that a survivor in such a situation will always present themselves as a perfect spokesperson is absurd, immoral, and unwinnable. It is absurd because no one can present themselves perfectly to all people all the time. It is immoral because survivors of childhood trauma need empathy, not harsh scrutiny. It is unwinnable because this standard is clearly set up by the system to protect that system. This isn’t the standard that other survivors of sexual assault or social justice activists are held to.
Other social justice issues are framed very differently. On other social justice issues, there is a clear understanding that there are perpetrators and oppressors on one side and there are survivors and people who've experienced injustice on the other. On other issues the understanding is that if the people who've experienced injustice, express themselves in a way that is harsh towards those who’ve harmed them, the reason that they're expressing themselves that way is because they've experienced injustice. The solution is to solve the injustice, not tone police the way that survivors and activists are expressing themselves.
To give some examples, on gender issues, there are feminists who say harsh statements about men. On racial justice issues, there are activists who express harsh statements about white people. The understanding on both is that we need to understand why it is they're saying what they are and what injustice is led them to express those statements. If the targeted group becomes upset about the way activists express themselves, it is due to that group’s fragility. This fragility is an attempt by the group spoken about to avoid understanding the injustice that activists are speaking about.
The dominant frame on other social justice issues is that when someone speaks about injustice it is our job to understand them and that any defensiveness or fragility to the way they express themselves is an obstacle to that understanding. That frame has not yet been applied to the issue of genital cutting.
You can see how absurd the dominant frame around genital cutting is when the reverse is tried and that frame is applied to other social justice issues. Imagine if within the feminist movement there were a group of men saying that although these issues are important, the feminist movement really needs to make sure it isn’t too “anti-male.” This group of men in feminist organizations might say “not all men” every time male misdeeds were brought up and demand those organizations issue statements against “anti-male rhetoric.” If we were to apply the dominant frame around genital cutting to racial justice issues, there would be white people within racial justice organizations demanding they denounce “anti-white” statements from racial justice activists and signing statements in support of white people. Of course, if you tried to push either frame within feminist or racial justice organizations, they’d laugh you out of the room. The understanding among those organizations is that their primary function is to advocate for people who’ve experienced injustice, not coddle the feelings of those they see as participating in their oppression.
Why then hasn’t the frame of other social justice movements not been the frame of organizations against genital cutting? Much of the movement against genital cutting is still using what Audre Lorde would call the master’s tools, meaning that they are working within the frame set by their opposition. Yet according to Lorde, one can never win working within this frame:
“They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.”
That last statement is important. Many of the people who say they want to change are still attached to and dependent on the systems they are trying to change. When the change they claim to want actually starts to happen, these people will fight to defend those systems which they claim to want to dismantle. I believe this is why my recent work, both with Children’s Justice and this site itself, have been so polarizing. Those who want to change the system love it. Those who are still attached to the system feel threatened by it.
Sally Kempton, a contemporary of Audre Lorde’s, once said, “it's hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.” On social justice issues, this means that it is hard to fight a system or abuser who someone has internalized. Many survivors have internalized their abuser and the system they claim to oppose.
All social justice movements eventually begin to realize that their opposition is not just out in the world, but in the beliefs and systems that their own members might still be holding on to. On gender issues, feminists speak about how women uphold patriarchy too and have “internalized sexism.” On racial justice issues, activists will speak about “internalized racism” or even “internalized whiteness.” Yet, the movement against genital cutting has not yet begun to explore how they might have internalized ideas from the dominant genital cutting cultures.
The reason people internalize their abusers is simple. Imagine a child who is abused. When they do something their parent does not approve of, the parent beats them. The child sees their parent approaching. They know they’ve done something wrong. The parent’s fists clench. Before the parent can take a swing, the child starts hitting themselves. They apologize, call themselves bad, and punish themselves. In this situation, the parent won’t hit them. They might even comfort the child or be glad they know they’ve done something wrong. By internalizing their abusive parent, the child has a defensive mechanism to keep themselves safe. If they beat themselves up, they can control the abuse, decide when it happens and much they will endure, and lessen the chances of the parent abusing them in a way they do not control.
While it is physically obvious in the situation described above, this internalized abuser dynamic exists in emotionally abusive situations as well. People often carry voices other than their own into adulthood, repeating beliefs given to them in childhood by people who did not have their best interests at heart. While these beliefs can come from an individual, they can also come from the systems and culture the child is socialized into. This dynamic can exist within and between entire groups of people if they have shared experiences and socialization.
I believe that this internalized abuser dynamic now exists within the genital autonomy movement. In the past, dominant opposition groups behaved abusively toward activists, beating them up through media, for expressing themselves in ways those abusers did not like. Now, to avoid this abuse, many activists beat themselves and other activists up if they express themselves in a way likely to trigger abusers. This internalized abuser manifests as a belief that if they just punish themselves or members of their movement who express themselves in a way their opposition doesn’t like, they can ensure their abusers won’t harm them in a way they don’t control. This pattern trades external abuse for self-abuse. Self-abuse is far worse.
Self-abuse does not actually keep the survivor safe. Self-abuse involves the survivor living with their abuser in their head at all times. It is far more dangerous. This internalization of the abuser often prevents the abused from seeing their abuser for what they are. Victims who’ve internalized their abuser often defend them. Someone with an internalized abusive parent might say, “my father was just trying to discipline me. If I had behaved better, he would not have hit me.” A movement with an internalized abuser will say, “they were just fighting ‘hate.’ If we had not said something that offended them, they wouldn’t have publicly tried to destroy us.”
Let’s pretend that it was possible for a child to always behave or a movement to control the speech and actions of every member. Suppose everyone was “perfect” by the standards of their abuser and never triggered their abuse. Would that actually create happiness and success for the victims? Would the abuser stop being an abuser? Would they actually dismantle the master’s house? We all know it would not.
Many of those with an internalized abuser fear that what I’ve said and written will trigger abusers. Rather than fighting abuse, they fight those speaking about it. In a dysfunctional family system, the person who speaks about abuse, rather than the abuse itself, is treated as the problem. The view of dysfunctional families is that if we just didn’t talk about the problem, it wouldn’t exist. In reality, the opposite is true. Confronting the problem is the only way to create healing.
Abusive family systems often scapegoat the person talking about their abuse. When abuse occurs, those with internalized abusers will often ask, “what did you do to set them off?” as if there is any behavior that justifies abuse. The reason abusers engage in abuse is because they are abusers. That's it. Nothing you do to control your own actions can make them a better person.
The only way to stand up to abuse is to stand up to abuse. Yes, that could be scary. It will require courage. That is the work of activism. We will never create the social change that we want until people remove their internal abuser. Focus on the behavior of victims is an enabling pattern that prevents the challenging work of seeing abusers for what they are and standing up to them.
The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. The reason that many people have not made as much change as they'd like to is that they are trying to fight an enemy who has outposts in their own head. If we actually want to create change, that change must begin internally with how we treat ourselves, by shifting from self-abuse to courage. When we change internally, we will be able to create external change as well.
I know that the way I speak is polarizing. I speak to people engaged in the abuse of children the way that racial justice activists speak to white people and feminists speak to men. Many of the quotes and ideas from my work that upset abusers the most come directly from these social justice activists with a few words changed to fit my issue. The way these activists speak can trigger people. It could at times be nicer. However, it doesn't change the truth of what we are speaking about nor the rightness of what we say.
When I speak with activists about the abuse they’ve endured, one of the common refrains is that “there's nothing we can do about it.” In one sense, that's true. You can't control what other people say about you. Yet, if you define winning as the ability to control others, isn’t that the definition of an abuser? Abuse is a control strategy. Abusers believe that if they can control others, they will be safe and get what they want. Do you believe if we could control them, the same would be true? What if instead of trying to control, we realized that although we cannot control them, they cannot control us. They can engage in abuse in an attempt to pressure us into doing what they want, but if we have courage we are free. Despite all that abusers have done, I feel freer than ever.
The way out of abuse isn’t to try to control abusers but to claim our own authenticity. That authentic voice might at times be imperfect. It might trigger some. Yet it is the only thing that can create real change and actually dismantle the master’s house.
I tried an experiment with this article. I first recorded it as a podcast, improvising the entire thing. Then I took the transcript and re-wrote and edited it. I think it turned out better than it would have as either just written or podcast. If you’d like to hear the audio version, which is slightly different, listen here.