: Discussion of abuse, apologism for abuse, abuse culture, rape, rape culture, criticism avoidance.
I was reading a thread on a friend's Facebook profile when I saw a comment on it consisting of an image with the same text as this one. The text is: "I often worry about the safety of my children, especially the one that is rolling their eyes at me & talking back right now."
Somebody made the choice to introduce an image like this one into a space containing people they did not know (our mutual friend's friends-only Facebook post). Let's unpack the assumptions behind this choice -- but first let's try to figure out what the image really means.
The speaker in the image -- along with the person who shares it in order to communicate their feelings -- wants to harm their child, presumably physically, because the child has "talked back". This desire to harm is unmistakable -- whether it will be acted on is unclear, but what is clear is that the speaker wishes to distance themself from their desire through the use of linguistic indirection. It's a verbal trick that furnishes plausible deniability just as it communicates perfectly clearly: "I want to physically assault my child because the child used words that displeased me, and maybe I will... nah, of course I really won't, I'll just think about it! *wink* *nudge*"
Let's talk about the assumptions implicit in a choice to share this image:Assumption 1:
The desire to physically assault a child (as opposed to the actual act) is a plausible or reasonable reaction to the child's verbal insubordination.
All feelings and reactions are real, and sometimes we have feelings we don't like, such as the desire to hurt somebody we love. It's okay
for a parent to admit that sometimes they want to hurt their child. It's okay to admit that we feel that way, but honesty and vulnerability are very different from jokes like this one. "It's just a joke" is a defense mechanism and is disingenuous discourse. Assumption 2:
The speaker would, of course, never really hurt their child; they're a good person who wouldn't abuse, and you're supposed to know that.
This assumption is predicated on another assumption, that abuse is a character trait
rather than a behavior
. Assuming "abuser" is a fixed category, or that in other words, only monsters abuse and good people can never commit harm, is a prerequisite for assuming that it's easy to tell who does or doesn't abuse.
This is part of how jokes create unsafe spaces: Why should we trust you, exactly? This is part of the reason (see assumption 1) why such discussions should perhaps be saved for therapy sessions. If you don't have friends who abuse their kids, you almost certainly
have friends whose friends abuse their kids. In a Facebook discussion, you don't know who the real abuser is and who's just joking about it. The presence of these jokes in a group makes it harder to trust people in it. They continually remind group members that there are abusers their midst and some of them will use "I'm only joking" to disclaim responsibility for their actions. It's a reminder to stay on guard, even for adults, because let's be real, people who abuse their kids aren't people who are safe to be around (especially not if you're a survivor of childhood abuse) -- they may not pick on people their own size physically, but they don't usually hesitate to do so emotionally.
Even if you accept this assumption (and why wouldn't you, except for people you know very well?), something else happens if someone who's listening is an abuser: that person will interpret the joke as further evidence that their behavior is acceptable, that it's socially approved of enough to make knowing little jokes about. Just as rape jokes serve the function of telling rapists that their behavior is the norm, that anybody would do it, child abuse jokes serve that same function for abusers.Assumption 3:
"Talking back" (failing to accept a parent's authority unconditionally) is something that should be punished.
Alice Miller has written extensively about the enduring popularity of authoritarian parenting and the intense harm that it does to children, even in the absence of physical violence. I just wonder what kind of child you're trying to raise if you want to teach somebody to accept authority at all times, no matter how arbitrary.
Regardless of whether the speaker actually wants or intends to commit physical violence against a child, the joke doesn't make sense unless you agree that "talking back" by a child (or really, by any subordinated person to their subordinator) is unacceptable.Assumption 4:
Parents need a "coping mechanism" for dealing with their children.
It was suggested to me that jokes like this are a "coping mechanism" to let off steam. But coping is something that you have to do when you're in a situation you can't get out of -- when you're powerless. Parents have near-absolute power over their children. If you are a minor, your parents have the legal right to hit you without your consent. Under some circumstances, they can deny you medical care and education. They're legally entitled to money you earn. You don't have the legal right to run away until you become a legal adult.
Parents, on the other hand, choose every day to continue caring for their children.
It may not seem like a choice, but it is. Every parent has the option of abandoning or surrendering their child to someone else's care. These options have serious consequences -- potential emotional ones for the parent, legal ones in the case of abandonment -- but parents have the privilege of choosing between facing these serious consequences, and continuing to accept responsibility for a child. Children don't have the choice to leave; they are subject to the coercive power of the state in returning them to their family of origin, except in cases of very severe abuse that can be substantiated. Even in those cases, the state has the right to place the child with other substitute parents without regard for the child's wishes, so the child still has no power.
Joking about hurting someone you have absolute power over isn't a coping mechanism; it's a threat. Parent/child relationships exist at the pleasure of the parent and without regard to the child's consent. You could
hurt your child if you don't like their "talking back". Who's going to stop you? Why stop at joking about it? Why should anybody assume that you will stop at that, if you're joking about that?
A more extreme version of the "coping mechanism" line of reasoning is that autistic children are a burden their parents must cope with. I think there's a continuum between the assumption that a child is something to cope with rather than the result of a constantly-renewed choice to continue being a parent, and the assumption that a disabled child requires extra-strong coping mechanisms.Assumption 5:
Children have power over parents
Similarly to the idea that women really run the world or that married men just do what their wives tell them, the idea that children control parents is a reversal that helps people collectively deny inequality. One hears parents talking about kids manipulating them, about throwing tantrums to get their way, but children don't have total control over their parents' lives and bodies that is reinforced by the state. Parents do, over children.Assumption 6:
Survivors aren't listening
Even ignoring assumptions 1 through 5, I would think that most people would realize it's in bad taste to joke about child abuse when adults who have survived child abuse are listening. So there's an assumption being made that survivors don't participate in society, or at least aren't in your social group, or if they are, they will stay silent in shame about their survivor identity.
This assumption is similar to the widespread contempt shown for the provision of empathetic metadata (aka trigger warnings or content warnings) that's part of the ongoing moral panic about acknowledging and recognizing the existence of trauma resulting from widespread, structural violence. Anti-empathy thinkpieces declare: survivors don't exist, or if they do, what they say about their own experiences is false, or even if it's not, they have no right to complain about not being heard. Stop making the rest of us uncomfortable!Assumption 7:
everyone knows it's just a joke.
Related to assumption 2.
Well... no? I mean, it's like those "ironic racism" jokes where a white person says something racist and you're supposed to know they're saying it "to make fun of racism". Maybe us white people should be working to dismantle racism rather than using it to score laughs, but I digress. In both cases, the jokiness is contingent on child abuse, or racism, not being a thing that really happens anymore.
Or maybe being a thing that happens in communities very far away from your own. Another Facebook friend-of-a-friend recently expressed shock about student protests over racism at Ithaca College
, stating that Ithaca isn't "Mississippi." In reality, racism is fundamentally woven into the fabric of all
of the United States, and child abuse is common everywhere, in every region, in rich families and poor families. Parents of every gender abuse their kids. People with Ph.Ds abuse their kids. Maybe ironic child abuse comments will be funny when all of the abuse has stopped, but that hasn't happened yet. Authoritarian, emotionally violent parenting is even more common than outright abuse. In a way, it's the norm. How often have I read somebody on a "childfree" forum saying the equivalent of, "If I had behaved that way in public [where 'that way' amounts to being a child], my parents would have tanned my hide"?
Interpersonal violence is a thing that has happened to your friends, that is
happening to your friends right now, and is something that your friends are doing to other people
. It's not something that the Other does in some distant place.Assumption 8:
Joking about beating or killing your child is different from a man joking about beating or killing his wife.
The latter kind of joke was more acceptable at one point but seems to have mostly fallen out of fashion. Given how much more power parents have over children than husbands have over wives, you would think that the former joke would be less acceptable than the latter, not more.
It's interesting that people react differently if you ask them:
"Why is it socially acceptable to joke about hurting your child?"
than if you show them this specific
joke. Maybe people assume that it's normal and natural to "worry about your child's safety" when the threat to your child's safety is yourself, or more to the point, that this is funny
rather than something to bring up with a professional counselor. People see that the abstract concept of joking about child abuse is disturbing, but fail to recognize concrete instances of the abstract concept for what they are.
As with all jokes, the joke-teller expects to get a laugh. People tell jokes to get approval, validate their beliefs, and increase social cohesion. Jokes make a space less safe when they function to remind people in that space that it's natural, normal or necessary to subjugate others. Child abuse jokes serve the dual function of signalling
that a space is already tolerant of abuse, and
reinforcing and recreating tolerance of abuse. They're not so much a barometer of emotional danger as a thermostat for it. The audience's reaction to a joke provides feedback that determines what else might be acceptable to say or do; that's how jokes make a space unsafe. It's no different from how sexist jokes in male-dominated professional spaces
make a space unsafe for women. In the same way that sexist jokes are primarily signals to other men, simultaneously checking that sexism is still acceptable and reminding men to accept and promote sexism, jokes about harming kids aren't directed directly at
kids -- they're reminders to other adults that it's okay to be authoritarian and requests for approval
from those adults that your authoritarianism is okay. The approval can be as simple as a laugh.
Next time someone tells a joke like this in your presence, don't laugh. Disapproval can be simple as a raised eyebrow, and it sends the message that jokes like this aren't
okay to make around you. Online, disapproval can be as simple as typing the words "not cool" or "that's not funny." Online, the onus is on people who aren't
survivors, who don't need to protect themselves by immediately blocking people who make jokes that suggest their lack of safety, to express disapproval. Few people are willing to admit to having been wrong immediately, but saying "not cool" can make an unsafe space a little safer; can let silent onlookers know that not everybody thinks this is okay.
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