Tool: Understanding and Breaking Coercive Control

  1. Introduction
  2. The Audition (video clip)
  3. Analysis:  The tactics of control
  4. The Way Out, The Way Forward
  5. Concluding Thoughts

Introduction

This post revolves around a short two-minute animated video (“The Audition,” directed by Daniel Cohen, created from a series of still photographs of fists).  The video features Joanna Lumley and Patrick Stewart literally playing out a domestic violence process.  It shows how entitlement, escalation, calculated outbursts, and honeymoon/reconciliation periods all converge to reinforce a system of coercive control — the same power dynamic underlying all forms of oppression and a major force of colonization.  In this way, domestic violence exists as a microcosmal reflection of the relationship between many people and the existing social order.

The video does an excellent job of dispelling the myth that domestic violence is mostly about physical violence (ie, people inflicting physical pain upon others). Domestic violence is coercive, controlling violence — the systematic (non-consensual) imposition of one’s will on another to create and reinforce a stagnant and arbitrary power dynamic for its own sake.  Coercive control is often slick and subtle, and may or may not include physical violence. Physical violence may serve coercive control, or it may serve as a form of defense against coercive control. We can only tell the one from the other when we understand the relational and social context of the violence — the social power dynamic.

The Audition (video clip)

TRIGGER WARNING — THE VIDEO MAY RETRAUMATIZE

TRANSCRIPT: The Audition

Setting: a female auditioner, clearly a professional with a lot of industry experience, calls on some finalists from an earlier audition to demonstrate their ability to represent the “face of domestic violence” by accurately portraying an abusive attitude.

Auditioner (voiced by Joanna Lumley): Now, thank you all for attending. You’ve all been superb. It’s a testament to the depth and range of aggression out there that any one of you could have been the new fist-face of domestic violence.

So, now, who’s still in for the chance to be the poster-boy of painful abuse? Um, I’d like to see number three, number seven [both appear clearly excited in front fo the camera] and number twenty three [appearing calm, almost bored] again.

Number three, let’s see you in action again.
[cut to Fist #3]
Fist #3: [flips the camera the bird]

Auditioner: Very good. Strong but silent, but this time I think you’re missing that little bit of magic. Number seven?
[cut to Fist #7]
Fist #7: [growls menacingly at the camera]

Auditioner: Very believable. I can almost feel myself bruising when I watch you. But I think this time you’re just a bit too obvious. Number twenty-three?
[cut to Fist #23]
Fist #23 [voice by Patrick Stewart, with a smug, confident drawl]: Hello, everyone.

Auditioner: Lovely start, keep going.

Fist #23: Do you know that on average you can beat a woman 35 times before she calls the police? Surprising, isn’t it?

Auditioner [excited, very pleased]: Very good!

Fist #23 [smugly]: Thank you, I am classically trained.

Auditioner [clarifying]: I was just thinking, the message we really want to get across–

Fist #23 [interrupting, irritated]: Yes, I think I know what the message is.

Auditioner: If I could just finish…What we–

Fist #23 [interrupting, agitated, pointing aggressively]: Listen, sweetie, I’ve been in the business a long time, and I don’t need someone like you telling me what to do.

Auditioner [flustered, confused]: But I…I just–

Fist #23 [shouting aggressively, pounding fist violently]: DON’T YOU TELL ME WHAT TO DO!!!

Auditioner [scared, terrified]: Sorry, sorry…

Fist #23 [calm again]: I’m so sorry. I don’t know what came over me. Shall we do another take…dear?

Analysis: the tactics of control

Notice how fist #23 creates the power dynamic by first interrupting and usurping control from the auditioner (who technically should have final and complete say in how the audition unfolds…afterall, they are auditioning for her). He uses demeaning language to reinforce his interruptions, then erupts in rage to cement his control of the situation and force his victim into a momentary position of apologetic submission. The auditioner apologizes almost automatically, as if she did something to provoke his rage, clearly trying to avoid further confrontation. Fist #23 capitalizes on the apologetic submission by quickly returning to a state of calm with a subtle and patronizing implication that she “provoked” him into his fit. Lastly, Fist #23 cements his dominance by moving everything back on track as if nothing at all had happened (except that he just terrorized her and completely usurped her agency), still using demeaning language as a tactic of control (“…dear”). He appears calm, while she is clearly shaken. Now they have an understanding, a working relationship: He can calmly order her around from a position of empowered entitlement, pretending like he’s requesting something when in fact he demands it. She now has a pretty good idea of what will happen if she either a. does something he doesn’t want, or b. doesn’t do something he wants. He will flip the switch randomly from this point on, to keep her in constant fear (aka, “walking on eggshells”) of when and whether he will snap.  In other words, she has been colonized, victimized, forced into the social role of a tool and artifact of oppression, slavery and control.

In the business, we call the abuser’s abrupt tactical shift in behavior “crazy-making.” It’s over and done with long before you’ve had time to even process what’s happening. You never quite know when, where or how you will “provoke” another violent outburst. You start self-policing (“walking on eggshells”), doing every little thing you can to please him, or at least to avoid his rage.  Only it doesn’t work, because compliance and submission (the flipside of power and entitlement) demand random reinforcement.

Crazy-making explains why, when outsiders encounter incidents stemming from longstanding forms of systematic oppression, they often find a hysterical victim and a calm, collected and rational abuser. Often, they misinterpret the situation and paint the victim as the aggressor, supporting and strengthening the abuser’s social position.  Sometimes, the victim fights back, and outsiders’ mythical and incoherent belief in “victim aggression” means the victim often goes to prison, sentenced as an aggressor, not as someone defending their life and liberty from a terrifying, controlling onslaught.

Victims live under intense scrutiny and control.  As a result, they have to carefully plan any means to defend themselves without alerting their abuser.  Ignoring the context of coercive control, the establishment confuses victims’ self-defense with “pre-meditation,” even though it’s often just part of a larger personal safety strategy to break free of coercive control. Sometimes, the coercive control that abusers impose on victims gets so bad that victims often defend themselves knowing they’ll probably go to prison for it.  Sometimes, defensive outbursts come as a surprise to both the victim and the abuser.  In other words, abusers create a situation where victims are either willing to either die trying to leave, or willing to defend themselves, go to prison, and effectively substitute one form of coercive control to break free from another. To quote Patrick Stewart from another clip:

“A couple of months ago, having read a report in The Guardian about women who were all completing their sentences for having murdered their partners…I was so moved by the stories of these three women, that I think for the first time ever I was compelled to send off a response to the Guardian, which they printed. One of the things that I said was that I was not a violent child… but if my mother had, at any point between [my ages] of 5-12, picked up a knife or any other weapon against my father, I would have held her hand as she did it. I would have locked the door while she carried it out. That’s how bad it was, to be growing up inside a violent household.”

That’s how bad it gets?  No, it gets worse, actually.

The Way Out, The Way Forward

Abusers make leaving the relationship one of the most dangerous things an abuse victim can do.   So it’s equally understandable when someone decides to stay, keep their head down and weather the storm for a bit longer.  If someone doesn’t intervene and neutralize the source of control, then these are the four possible outcomes:

  1. The victim dies (murdered or suicide)
  2. The abuser dies (murdered in defense)
  3. Both die (abuser murder-suicide; note that abusers will often threaten suicide as a control tactic, but are more likely, if really suicidal, to commit a murder-suicide — another manifestation of empowered entitlement)
  4. Victim remains under abuser control

So, the victim must choose between prison, death or slavery to the terror of a living death in the constant shadow of coercive control.  I believe this is what people mean when they say, “No justice, no peace.”  Historically, when others have intervened, it has been victim-focused, and often victim-blaming in various ways (structurally speaking, any intervention that does not include accountability for the abuser and neutralization of the source of the threat is victim blaming).  In his book Coercive Control, Evan Stark points out a difficult truth that the domestic violence shelter movement has actually not made any progress toward its mission to protect the lives of abuse victims, who still get murdered by abusers at the same rate as before shelters appeared.   However, in giving victims the perception of a safe option, the shelter movement has effectively protected the lives of abusers who would otherwise have been murdered by their victims in an act of self-defense. To effectively protect the lives of victims, we must intervene proactively to neutralize the source of the ever-constant threat and terror the abuser creates in the life of the victim.

This intimate form of oppression is bad enough — but it doesn’t stop there.  We live in a society where the dynamic of coercive control manifests in various ways that intersect with or nest within one-another.  For example, a similar dynamic exists between black people (esp. black men, but also people of color generally) and the police state (including the prison-industrial complex), native people and the US and Canadian corporate governments, or between bosses and workers, or the 1% and the 99%, or hetero people and queers, etc, etc.

Due to the nesting and intersecting nature of coercive control, the intimate partner abuser may in turn suffer any number of other societal abuses at the hands of others, inside other institutional contexts (the indignities of wage slavery and subservience to the police state being two of many examples).  No clear “abuser/victim” dichotomy exists in an abusive, colonizing society.  That does not excuse an abuser’s perpetuation of coercive control from their particular position of empowered entitlement.

I often think that people abuse, not only because that’s how we learned to “relate” to the rest of the world, but because, deep down, we all desire liberation, and the established social order has convinced us wrongly that we can somehow find freedom by clawing our way up a rigid social hierarchy — by participating in and perpetuating a master/slave dynamic.  When we accept empowered entitlement and coercive control as our relational MO, we confine ourselves to social roles that destroy us and prevent our personal and relational development while reinforcing the very systems and institutions we seek to escape in the first place.  Liberation means relinquishing control and empowered entitlement as much as it means fighting off the coercive control of others.  When we do these two activities together, we gain the opportunity to build solidarity, where people help one-another in their autonomous struggles for liberation.

That said, abusers from the privileged side of the equation tend to behave intractably — that is, they actively refuse and resist change as an inherent part of the institution of coercive control.  I think this happens in part because nested and intersecting forces of colonization reinforce one-another and consistently reassert themselves.  Our desire for liberation conflicts with our social privilege.  The more privilege we have, the greater the conflict.  Besides, willingness to change and relinquish control would defeat the purpose of coercive control in the first place!

For example, in keeping with Evan Stark’s analysis of the DV shelter movement,  consider that cops still murder black people at the same rate that white mobs lynched them a few decades ago.  If the goal is the valuation of black lives (#blacklivesmatter), then we see that the institutions themselves rarely change in noticeable or meaningful ways, even when everyone involved wants the change.  Nor can they ironically impose meaningful change on anyone.   They do what they were designed to do:  control people through the imposition and strict enforcement of narrow social roles, upholding and reinforcing empowered entitlement and master/slave power dynamics.  When we legitimize the institutions, we play a game of whack-a-mole.  Sure, lynch mobs don’t happen as often as they used to.  But it’s still technically legal to murder a black person (that is, you can expect that the “justice system” won’t indict and prosecute you for the murder, as long as you’re not also black).  To value the lives of black people, we must actively abandon and destroy the “white” and “black” identities that form the master/slave dynamic of institutionalized racism, otherwise coercive control will simply continue to reassert itself in different ways.   Passive “white colorblindness” is just another version of what Howard Zinn called trying to “stay neutral on a moving train.”  People getting their heads bashed in can’t afford to “turn the other cheek.”

So when a good friend of mine holds a sign at a protest saying, “I respect black rage,” I understand and agree.  I see her carefully and forcefully acknowledging and abandoning her white identity for a greater, liberatory solidarity.  Respect it and support it.  The only way to protect life and liberty in the context of coercive control is to neutralize the source of empowered entitlement and the institutional means through which it manifests and imposes itself on victims.  That source exists within us and others.  Attack and undermine its social legitimacy.  Destroy its power.  This may involve struggles between individuals, but it must move beyond the individual interactions to target the social roles of empowered entitlement and victimization that coercive control requires.  That involves coordinated, direct action as well as chaotic, individual leadership.  Just as angry mobs can reproduce empowered entitlement, they can also destroy the thin veil of control that the existing social order uses to keep most people submissive and compliant in the face of overwhelming injustice.

Concluding Thoughts

We can’t make abusers change, but we can protect ourselves effectively from their onslaught. MLK, Jr, understood this (he carried a firearm “for protection,” surrounded himself with armed bodyguards, and a journalist described his home as “an arsenal.” Many understood the need for effective self-defense at the height of the civil rights movement:

Having fought in World War II, Williams led his local chapter in advocating armed self-defense after a nonviolent campaign for local desegregation failed. In his book, Negroes With Guns, he describes one occasion when he had to protect himself from a lynch mob.

As the mob is shouting for gasoline to be poured on Williams and his friends, and begins to throw stones, Williams steps out of the car with an Italian carbine in hand.

“All this time three policemen had been standing about fifty feet away from us while we kept waiting in the car for them to come and rescue us. Then when they saw that we were armed and the mob couldn’t take us, two of the policemen started running. One ran straight to me, grabbed me on the shoulder, and said, ‘Surrender your weapon! Surrender your weapon!’ I struck him in the face and knocked him back away from the car and put my carbine in his face, and told him that we didn’t intend to be lynched. The other policeman who had run around the side of the car started to draw his revolver out of the holster. He was hoping to shoot me in the back. They didn’t know that we had more than one gun. One of the students (who was seventeen years old) put a .45 in the policeman’s face and told him that if he pulled out his pistol he would kill him. The policeman started putting his gun back in the holster and backing away from the car, and he fell into the ditch.

“There was a very old man, an old white man out in the crowd, and he started screaming and crying like a baby, and he kept crying, and he said, ‘God damn, God damn, what is this God damn country coming to that the n*****s have got guns, the n*****s are armed and the police can’t even arrest them!’ He kept crying and somebody led him away through the crowd.”

We know we’re onto something good when sad, old abusers cry in frustration as they witness the disintegration of their social privilege.  Effective self-defense is a form of direct action that directly threatens the legitimacy of institutions of oppression.  It is one of the first ways we defect from and sabotage the existing social order.  In doing so, we create space and agency for more direct action to destroy the source of the threat requiring the defense in the first place.

let’s not forget about Robert F. Williams, Ella Baker, Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X and then later the Black Panther Party—all of whom advocated for violent retaliation, scaring their oppressors, and therefore opening up space for non-violent demonstrators to protest under safer conditions.

Inside that space, we have boundless opportunity to explore new forms of relating and interacting, only if the defensive response also undermines, delegitimizes and destroys other intersecting or nested forms of coercive control instead of reproducing them (e.g., sexism, intimate partner violence along with institutionalized racism).  The New Civil Rights Movement must tear down and destroy all intersecting and nested institutions of oppression and their related identities of empowered entitlement.  To liberate any one of us, we must liberate all of us.  To liberate all of us, we must manifest solidarity as mutual support of autonomous liberatory struggles.   And we must continue to destroy those institutions, identities and social roles wherever they threaten to grow again, otherwise we will create a “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” situation.  We have lots to destroy.  So let’s get on with it.

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2 Responses to Tool: Understanding and Breaking Coercive Control

  1. Julie Buhite says:

    A very scary video. Gave me chill bumps and I’m still on edge. The “face” of domestic violence is brilliantly displayed here in an amazingly simplified way. I wish everyone could see this video — except those of us who have already lived the terror of it. Eerie and chilling.

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