As a young child, I was considered pacifistic beyond belief. Even when faced with cruel taunts or physical abuse from other children, it never occurred to me to reciprocate that behaviour in any capacity. I was saddened by it, but let it go. I was quiet and sick much of my early years, an only child, and preferred to indulge and escape from the outside world through books. I desired connection and friendship and intimacy but was unable to obtain it despite my awkward efforts; I stood out too much, didn’t understand pop-culture references, and an ethnic appearance, as well as an abundance of body hair from a young age, made me an unpopular and unsociable candidate to fit in, especially in a foreign country.
I also moved around frequently, and spent primary school in four different countries; this instability did not help. Many of my experiences in my later years in primary, however, are coloured by anger. My opinions and thoughts of much of my early life were treated with dismissal, with mockery, and as if they were immature or lacking in understanding of reality. It is a struggle to reaffirm today, with support, that they are all very much valid.
Today, I feel the need to question whether anger is a useful emotion at all by itself; some psychologists suggest that it is an intermediate emotion to hurt or sadness, with no direct purpose by itself. I disagree. While anger and sadness are certainly not polarising, I believe that anger typically emerges when you attribute the cause of an unfair, unjust or simply unideal situation that occurs to an external source: the world, a person, or a context. I believe that there is an overwhelming anger to always feeling powerless; as a child, as a woman, as a person of colour and as a disabled person.
Throughout my life, it is this that I have struggled with. Understanding my overwhelming anger at any injustice, whether one that occurred to me or someone else. Further frustrated by the tendency of other victims to blame themselves for things that were in no way their fault or responsibility and their seeming inability to recognise the injustice for what it was. Confused by how victims of one injustice were sometimes the perpetrators and aggressors of another. Unable to comprehend the fact that an aggressor is not necessarily incorrigibly reprehensible and lacking in any empathy or morality, rather, just another flawed human being. But some flaws seem so much more unforgivable than others.
As a five-year-old child, the power dynamics between adults and children perplexed me. For many centuries, children were seen as imperfect adults — a deadweight to serve as extra labour before they too matured. It is only recently that childhood has started to be celebrated as its own precious stage — where children are considered in their categories with unique strengths and weaknesses that should be appreciated rather than condemned. However, I don’t believe that this is a mindset that is fully present or will be fully present for a while yet, as long as it is deemed okay to raise a hand towards a child or even to act in any way towards them that you would not an adult.
Collage by Victoria Magdalinski
The most frequent justification that I’ve heard in response to this is: “My parents hit me, I turned out perfectly fine.” I am genuinely glad that it did not affect you, but to imply that your experience is the same as that of everyone else, or that your experience alone justifies an entire practice, seems like a large reach. At a risk of a slightly unrelated comparison, some people will never experience adverse health effects from smoking, but that hardly means that is the common outcome. It’s a bit of a challenge to reference scientific literature when studying the impact of physical abuse of children — and yes, it is abuse. If you would criticise someone who would hit their partner, a friend, or someone on the street, regardless of the disagreement or misdemeanor, then why on earth is it possibly acceptable to hit someone that is smaller and weaker than you, who is physically incapable of defending themselves and who feels pain and mental anguish from your actions?
It is considered illegal to hit a dead body and you can be prosecuted for doing so; how laughable it is that a living child has even less rights in the eyes of the law. The same law that would criminalise any form of physical assault that is non-consensual, somehow makes a distinction between ‘physical discipline’ and ‘child abuse’. Many people call out this distinction — a reoccurring theme that signifies a sense of ownership one’s feels over their child. But that seems nonsensical too. A child isn’t an object or a plant, but a living, autonomous individual.
The concept of body autonomy is only a recently familiar one, and something that is surprisingly exceedingly hard to make people understand. Every individual, even a child, has the fundamental right of self-determination over their own bodies. This right extends to freedom from physical assault and sexual assault — but both are violated each day with only a horde of justifying excuses to follow. This injustice is hardly limited to children however — women’s reproductive rights and freedom of self-expression are also under attack. Perhaps then, there is some truth to the idea of a web of oppression, wherein every sense of the notion those with higher social and financial status dictate or attempt to control the lives of those without those things.
Why is it considered acceptable for a family to control or dictate how an adult daughter dresses of her own free volition? Why is it considered acceptable for anyone but a pregnant mother, who is responsible for facing the physical and mental consequences of either childbirth or abortion, to have any say in the final decision? Why is it considered acceptable to act abusively for any reason towards a powerless child? Most importantly, why are people too cowardly to recognise their own cognitive dissonance and confront the idea that they may be the things they dislike?
It baffles me even further when people are content with simply escaping the system rather than changing it. The answer is not gaining education, power and wealth only to be dismissive of those who do not have those things. The answer is not looking down on housewives, only to get a house husband of your own. The answer is not being satisfied that you have access to adequate birth control, so that the predicament of those without seems foolish. While equalising the power between different demographics is an extremely important step forward, there will probably always be groups with more social power or wealth than others. The important thing to be established then, is that this is okay. Everyone deserves the same amount of respect and consideration regardless of their social position.
Moving forward, I am trying to replace more of that anger with empathy. People are only ever a product of their environment and encouraging them to consider different perspectives gently is the only way to generate a change in mindsets. It is frustrating at times and unbearably difficult at others, but it is hypocrisy on my part to expect empathy from someone without showing it to them myself. It is, after all, a learned quality. I may never have the same voice as you — never the same power, the same ability or the same status. But despite that, I hope you will extend the same consideration to my welfare that I do yours. I hope that I can help create that change with a little more kindness at a time.