On 25th November 2019, within the inauguration of the Orange the World campaign held under the patronage of the UN, the Soroptimist Club of Warsaw organised a discussion panel on violence against women and girls. The panel was attended by: Psychologist Ewa Woydyłło-Osiatyńska, Ph.D.; Personal Development Trainer, Ilona Sobol; Vice President of the La Strada Foundation, Joanna Garnier; Head of the Blue Line Polish Nationwide Emergency Service for Victims of Domestic Violence, Renata Durda; Police Commissioner, Roman Kulik; and President of the Art of Freedom Foundation, Olga Żmijewska.
We are happy to present our foundation’s chairwoman’s speech below.
With reference to the Orange the World campaign and the topic of violence against girls and women, two basic questions come to mind: Why do perpetrators use violence? Why do victims succumb to violence?
In this essay, I will demonstrate that the answers can be found, among others, in the way that children are educated and in broadly understood culture, where violence has set its roots deep and where everyone is, in fact, a victim. I will end by giving some examples of long-term solutions that could contribute to mitigating the phenomenon of violence—not just against girls and women, but in more general terms.
I am the founder and president of the Art of Freedom Foundation, which I established to promote and raise awareness on the freedom of an individual. As a woman with feminist and egalitarian views, I perceive freedom mainly through the prism of the empowerment of women, which I have been supporting through my actions for over a decade. These undertakings are also contributing to my personal development and helping me to understand my own experiences. Just like so many other people, I too have experienced various forms of violence in the social roles adopted by me: as a child, an immigrant, a subordinate, a woman, and a younger member of my family of origin. All these roles have one common denominator—they are juxtaposed with roles that are considered more superior in our society. In the culture we live in, the following asymmetrical pairs are created: child – parent, immigrant – native inhabitant, woman – man, younger family member – older aunt/uncle, grandfather/grandmother, etc.
My personal experiences and my work in academia have prompted me to reflect on the topic of violence, which at a certain point in time I came to realise is pervasive in Polish culture. Numerous discussions, observations, and the study of reading matter led me to the conclusion that we live in a culture of rape and violence in Poland. Their sheer prevalence has often prevented us from realising that they have become part of our own, personal experience. We are also oblivious of directing acts of violence against ourselves and other people. The use of violence goes hand in hand with experiencing it as one of its consequences.
Authoritarianism—From the Family to the State
As a culture expert, my main areas of research are the civic society, the study of religion, as well as authoritarianism and the links between them. In my research work, I have also come across the works of philosophers Hannah Arendt (The Origins of Totalitarianism) and Theodor W. Adorno (The Authoritarian Personality), who were searching for the social root causes of Nazism, asking about the psychological and social predispositions to co-create totalitarian and authoritarian regimes. While Arendt and Adorno assume a broad perspective from the level of the nation, statehood, and society, psychotherapist Alice Miller harnesses similar observations and conclusions, transferring them to the field of the smallest social unit, which is the family.
Alice Miler called the Prussian style of education prevailing also in Poland as the Black Pedagogy (The Drama of the Gifted Child, The Rebellion of the Body, Enslaved Childhood). This concept is used to describe the “training” of a person to be obedient to authority using a reward and punishment system, the conditioning the child, their humiliation and intimidation, the breaking of their physical and mental boundaries, and using derision as a child-rearing method. The parallel study of the works of Adorno, Arendt, and Miller gives a multidimensional image of how the authoritarian style of upbringing has sanctioned and even conditioned totalitarianism. In cinematography, Michael Haneke offers a heartrending depiction of this in the film The White Ribbon.
The breaking of the physical boundaries of a person holds an important place in the stream in pedagogy referred to as Black Pedagogy. These include prodding or hitting another person, but also forcing a child to eat despite them communicating that they are not hungry. The breaking of physical boundaries also includes touching and kissing children without asking them for their consent, as well as forcing them to engage in physical contact with others (e.g., forcing them to kiss relatives and sit on their knees).
Growing up in an atmosphere where somebody else decides about your body prevents you from identifying with it. Such a person starts to detach from their body and from the sensations coming from it, which clearly provides them with a plethora of information about the situation that they have found themselves in—information coming from the subconscious mind. Being disconnected from the body is often the consequence of being “trained” as early on as during infancy. I have in mind here the emotionally cold upbringing approach where a crying infant is referred to as a terrorist who is not to be succumbed to and who should be allowed to cry it out. Alexander Lowen, psychotherapist and creator of bioenergetics (Love, Sex, & Your Heart; Joy, Fear of Life) described the tragic consequences of such a method, also pointing to the split between the mind and the body and the sensations coming from it.
In early childhood, a person experiences situations where they learn to distrust their body. The tragic thing about this is that it is the body that can alarm us much faster than the mind of impending dangers present in social situations where abuse and violence can occur. A person who is not in contact with their body will not be able to decipher these signals in good time. This is exactly what happens in the case of persons entering toxic and abusive relationships. Oftentimes, these are women. Forcing girls to interact physically with other people is a way of systematically getting them used to their boundaries being violated. The encroachment of a person’s corporeality against their will becomes normality, which then becomes a reference point for adult relationships with men. Moreover, such a warped and constructed normality becomes the foundation for moral values, social standards, as well as legal acts enforced by the state. This underpins the legal acts defining and sanctioning violence and restricting the reproductive rights of women, too. They are more often than not created by a male majority to whom the experience of a woman’s physiology is completely alien. This is a manifestation of a violation of a woman’s physical boundaries on the level of the apparatus of the state.
The Persecutor – Victim Drama, where the roles have been prescribed “from above”
Hearing the phrase “violence against women” brings to mind domestic abuse against women by men, thus, abusive relationships. This is because, statistically speaking, men commit acts of violence more often. The polarity of female victim/ male perpetrator appears.
I would like to broaden this perspective and move away from the collective stigmatisation of men, pointing out the fact that a woman experiences abuse not only directly, from the hands of her oppressor, but also from the entire system, where both she and the perpetrator function. This is the culture that we have been raised in and taught during the course of socialisation. There is a strong cultural pressure exerted by different persons, regardless of sex, present in this whole puzzle. In a traditional society where faith communities are charged with providing moral authority, there is a strong emphasis on the nuclear family (parents + children) and its continuance at all costs—also in cases of domestic abuse. In Poland, the Catholic Church plays a major role in this pressure. This is an organisation with an authoritarian structure that inherently requires absolute obedience from its members and instils a passive and submissive attitude in them.
In principle, both men and women exert social control. In the book The Beauty Myth, journalist Naomi Wolf identifies a system of social pressure that women exert on women. Wolf calls it the Union of Women. Women experiencing domestic abuse from other women are very often pressured not to report the abuse and stay with their oppressor for the sake of the “good” of the family, instead of receiving support. In this case, it is not the living person who has the right to wellbeing but the social institution of the family. The good of the person loses value and an abstract construct gains it. Here too society seems to be blind to the physical boundaries of a woman.
Violence as a Corollary of Hormone Dependence
In this context, I am examining the person committing the abuse and asking myself what drove them to commit such acts of violence against women. Do they also not flow from the system? Is the perpetrator also not a victim at the same time? And is their act of violence not just the passing of the baton in this cruel relay race? In this context, Alice Miller writes that persons who have experienced violence carry contempt. They assume contempt for oneself from their abusers, whereas contempt for others is felt by them as a defence against a terrible shame. John Bradshaw (On the Family, Homecoming) speaks here of a toxic shame that the person subjected to the abuse picks up from their oppressor. This is because it is the perpetrator who feels the shame (provided that they are not psychopaths). They are ashamed of their actions while, at the same time, being incapable of helping themselves and incapable of stopping, which, according to John Bradshaw, may be down to the fact that the violence is committed habitually and compulsively here.
Bradshaw calls this kind of abuse “rageaholism” and lists it among other addictions like workaholism, alcoholism, and sexaholism. All of them are disorders and require treatment with therapy. Similarly, the biochemical cocktail that floods the mind of a person suffering abuse may also be addictive. This means that the sense of being a victim is also a strong habit, an addiction even, that inclines a person to engage in relationships where this cocktail appears. The human brain creates appropriate neuronal connections in early childhood—often as already in foetal life—when the mother may have experienced abuse and her body may have produced stress hormones. For the child, in the foetal life in physiological union with her/his mother, such an atmosphere becomes a familiar environment. Perversely and tragically, it is the high level of stress and anxiety hormones that makes them feel “at home”, and “at their mother’s place”. The sense of threat is tamed and erroneously interpreted as “the norm”.
Gender – the Real Monster
When discussing violence, on the one hand, we are talking about hierarchy and, on the other, about weakness. If the person considers themselves to be higher in the hierarchy, they use violence against the person who seems lower, and this is an expression of weakness. There is also the question of the abuser—why do they do it? Where do the patterns of violence come from in them? Is violence not a call for help in circumstances when the perpetrator is not coping with the situation?
At this point, we must return to the topic of Black Pedagogy to which of course boys—statistically speaking future abusers— are also subjected. Their experience of violence during their upbringing is often associated with being raised according to gender stereotypes. What is telling is that boys and girls are being raised in an atmosphere of taboo surrounding certain sets of emotions. While there is an acceptance of emotions like anger, rebellion, and aggression among boys (resulting in group divisions), girls are raised with an acceptance of emotions like caring, compassion, sharing, and submissiveness, which in turn contribute to group consolidation. The programming of boys to express aggression, also towards others, and of girls to be obedient, submissive and avoidant of confrontation can already be seen here. Simplistically speaking, enmeshment in gender that Judith Butler (Gender Trouble) writes about, is also an enmeshment in violence and the drama that this entails, where the role of the perpetrator and victim have already been prescribed “from above”.
Raising children in accordance with gender stereotypes also occurs through a system of control. The manifestation of characteristics that have been culturally ascribed to the opposite sex results in the shaming of an individual in the form of verbal abuse with references to the opposite sex. Thus, an artificial division between people of different sex is being introduced from a very young age. The use of neutral words describing the opposite sex as epithets to shame or also offend them (e.g., telling boys that they cry like a girl) antagonises people based on their sex. Instead of the home being a place abundant in love, understanding, and sincere curiosity of one other, it is a place where conflict erupts from a very early age.
All Good Girls Go to Hell
The female experience of violence in relation to a man may, for many women, stem from their childhood experiences as well as their beliefs about romantic love and their learned need to combine and maintain the family structure that has been ingrained in their gender. These factors may turn out to be very strong and affect the powerlessness of women, resulting in them remaining in a situation that is damaging to them. The good girl and sleeping beauty archetypes, which do not manifest empowerment but passively wait for the actions of the man who will allegedly appear, choose her, and wake her from her sleep, are still strong in Polish society. The Madonna archetype, on the other hand, glorifies the experience of suffering and the patient sacrifice of self for others—the relationship/the man/the children.
The woman as a multidimensional person with a body, her own will, and who experiences emotions does not exist in any of these archetypes. What’s more, in none of these archetypes does the woman have a voice. She remains silent and waits, at the mercy of others. Against this background, the most tragic is the Madonna archetype based on the figure of Holy Mary, who was a woman fertilised against her will by an unknown perpetrator (the so-called holy spirit). A raped woman who gives birth to a child that came about through an act to which she did not consent is acknowledged by the catholic church as holy. She is the greatest patron of Poland, presented as an example to women by the dominant religious community in Poland. It is here that we should look for the reasons for the ruthlessness of the right political wing in the debate on the reproductive rights of women.
Time to Change the Paradigm
Violence is systemically part and parcel of our collective experience and the socialisation that we all go through. Both the dominant educational model as well as the education system are rooted in Black Pedagogy and based on the premise that a young person requires conditioning and training to become a fully-fledged member of society. The very concept of applying the punishment–reward duet is violent in principle as it requires hierarchisation. After all, nobody uses punishments and rewards towards their boss or a priest. These behaviours are only applied in relation to persons who in the social contract have been recognised as lower in the hierarchy. Notice that this not only applies to children but also to subordinates, and even to asylum seekers and job seekers. Procedures on the level of state administration are often based on violence, debasement, and disdain.
Due to the systemic nature of the violence in which we are all swimming in like in molten lava, support is needed both to the persons suffering abuse as well as to those committing the abuse. Both sides require therapy, during which they develop new patterns and new neuronal connections. Such work will only be productive if it takes place in a safe and conducive social atmosphere—far from pressure and control. The time has come to replace authoritarianism and hierarchy with empathy and to learn nonviolent communication feeling responsible for oneself, for others, and for the community that we all co-create together. After all, freedom is inextricably linked with responsibility.
By making young people aware in their freedom, we are conveying to them an awareness of their own power and rights so that both boys and girls can feel their empowerment and believe in themselves, knowing their rights well. This will help them think independently which, combined with empathy, will give them the ability to give constructive criticism and trust in their own judgement and intuition, away from the commands given by so-called authority figures. Blind obedience towards those who have been raised up on a pedestal by state administration or by faith communities may of course prove disastrous on many occasions and lead to various kinds of abuse from persons holding a higher position in the social hierarchy.
Black Pedagogy creates obedient people who, coming from authoritarian family structures, will be able to fit in perfectly to the authoritarian structures of corporations or state administration, and they themselves will be creating such structures. This is their normality which they were in contact with from their first days of life. This is the area where persons raised in an authoritarian family system feel most at home. In the new paradigm, we are showing young people of both sexes that they have an impact on their life and their fate, and that they have a voice which they can always use. These circumstances apply to everybody, regardless of sex.
Democracy creates good conditions to move away from a hierarchical way of perceiving society—even if neoliberalism requires hierarchisation. My postulation is to change the paradigm and move away from blindly following so-called authority figures towards working closely with oneself, feeling empowerment and empathy towards other beings. This requires a change in the approach to parenting, which Jean Liedloff, among others, wrote so poignantly about (The Continuum Concept). The first step is to change the family model and move away from the authoritarian model which desensitises us to violence and teaches us to use violence. Educational reform and actions to promote a secular state are also necessary.
Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism
Theodor W. Adorno, The Authoritarian Personality
Alice Miler, The Drama of the Gifted Child, The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Hurtful Parenting, Prisoners of Childhood
Alexander Lowen, Love, Sex, & Your Hear, Joy, Fear of Life
John Bradshaw, Bradshaw On: The Family, Homecoming
Judith Butler, Gender Trouble
Jean Liedloff, The Continuum Concept