Labels are all very well and - if you are affluent - welcome when they are Giorgio Armani, Christian Dior, Givenchy, Aigner or Gucci. But what about labels like “stupid”, “idiot” , “dull”, “lazy”, “useless”, “fatso”, “neurotic” “Pakis”, or (in the case of a woman) “fast” and “loose.” It could be even worse, especially with names of animals (“dog”, “donkey”, “owl”) and unmentionable expletives being hurled around. Such labels or what feminists and psychologists call “verbal abuse” does happen behind closed doors so people may not see the problem. In fact some psychologists say that while physical abuse can be seen, its spoken version, can be subtle and it is possible that even the victim may take a long time to recognize it and take it lying down in the belief that it could be worse.
A prime example of verbal use is Sarvmangala who was born with a twisted hand. Subject to humiliation and cruel jibes from her peers and relatives, she was called “Dund” (cripple). Or take the case of an educated women, regularly termed “stupid” or “idiot” by her husband. Or the cruel Sikh jokes that term “ Surds” as “having nothing up there”. Likewise all Muslims can be regarded as “terrorists” or “fanatics” or “Blacks/ Niggers” as “trashy” and “criminals”. In the West all Asians are regarded as “Pakis”
Sensitive children can have it even worse when brought up on a staple of verbal abuse.
Says a young media professional: “We are all born with labels—girl, boy and the names we are given stay with us for the rest of our lives. As we get older, more labels are attached—like a ‘difficult’ child is called a brat without looking into why they are behaving like that. A laughing, non-serious teenager is termed a ‘joker’ or a ‘clown’. These labels, which can be very hurtful to the vulnerable adolescent, continue to change as we get older but they are an element of society that will never completely disappear.”
Pimmi Bais, a school teacher, too has a perspective of the damaging effects of verbal abuse. As she says, “To live in harmony with our peers and society is the ultimate goal of every human being. Therefore, right from childhood we seek appreciation from our near ones whose compliments make us float on cloud nine. Children are always doing things to please their parents and teachers and often push themselves beyond reasonable limits to hear that magical word ‘excellent’. Achievers are pampered and appreciated both at home and school and are called ‘genius’, ‘beautiful’, ‘talented’ and so on. But what happens when unfortunately, due to a slight physical disability, instead of praise and positive encouragement, children are subject to humiliation and cruel jibes by peers and relatives? Cruel nicknames like ‘dund’ (cripple), ‘totla’ (stammerer), ‘pagla’ (insane) and ‘mota’ (obese) are hurled at innocent kids to tease and torment them.”
An expert view on the issue comes from psychologist Shalini Anant: “ While not all labeling is abusive in nature, sometimes such epithets are also terms of endearment. Like any form of abuse, epithets take the form of abuse when they are used by a person (s) with more power (e.g. parent, teacher, employer or a member of a higher class/caste) with whom the labeled person cannot use a label in return. Friends often use labels for each other and in that case they are not abusive, unless one person is being labeled by (almost) everyone, in which case it again becomes a power issue of majority versus minority. This latter case is also by no means infrequent, especially among school children and a little less often in work situations.”
Did you read the well-loved story of ‘The Ugly Duckling’? All about a duckling who was made to believe that he was “ugly”. Ostracized by other ducks, including his mother, he runs away. After a series of misadventures where everyone teases and torments him and drives him to the edge, he finally realizes that in reality he is truly different—not an ugly duckling at all but a beautiful swan. Likewise many fairy tales and myths centre around the theme of the outcast.
What about Tagore’s famous dance drama , ‘Chandalika’? The story revolves around the plight of a young Chandalika ( a girl of the untouchable caste) who is ostracised by society simply because she hails from a ‘lower’ class and is never allowed to forget it ?
Or even how cruel young ones can be to their counterparts who are ?????????????????????????????????Hindi speaking types’ (A weird idea for Bangladeshis who take pride in speaking their national language) or ‘behenjis’ (A simple, unsophisticated girl or woman).
One friend of my acquaintance said she would never send her children to a particular school because it was filled with ‘servants’ children. Or the other who had her name distorted in her painful, growing up years and remained for the rest of her life the butt of sarcastic ridicule for being ‘different’ as she did not fit into the narrow and shallow world of social chitter chatter.
There’s a theory that people from ‘lower castes’ or household help are largely the target of verbal abuse. They can thus be called ‘stupid’, ‘idiot’, ‘mad’ or the choicest Hindi abuse such as the names of animals and worse. One friend who runs an export business says that it is largely the nouveau riche and sometimes business suppliers who pay little heed to the dignity of labor as by and large in the West. In her view, the working classes of UK and the US too could be held guilty for the choicest verbal abuse, while educated professionals from Germany, Sweden and Finland take strong objection to verbal abuse.
So what does the law say about verbal abuse? Dependent on the abuse and situation, verbal abuse may constitute a crime in several countries—in varying degrees and forms in Europe, Canada, South Africa, US, while slander, libel, and defamation are considered crimes in many countries.
As far as the law in India goes, says Tenzing Choesang, senior research and advocacy officer of the Lawyers’ Collective, verbal abuse comes under the umbrella of Section 3 of the Domestic Violence Act. The term ‘verbal abuse’, she says, covers on the one hand, insults, humiliation, ridicule and name calling, especially for women who do not have a male child. Secondly, in the case of repeated threats to cause physical pain to a person. If a case of such abuse does arise, the courts can pass a restraining order and direct the abuser not to pursue on this path. If the restraining order is breached, such abuse can be regarded as a cognizable non-bailable offence with the possibility of imprisonment up to one year and a fine of Rs 20,000.
Such cases do occur, most often with a little physical abuse, such as slapping or pushing a woman, according to Supriya Yadav, legal officer with the same Collective. It could also primarily be verbal abuse. As she points out, the Lawyer’s Collective gets about one-two cases of verbal abuse a month.
Patricia Evans, author of ‘The Verbally Abusive Relationship: How to Recognize and How to Respond’ and ‘Verbal Abuse Survivors Speak Out’, has firm theories on the subject. Verbal abusers, she asserts, “almost universally act like nothing happened, like they feel fine and the relationship is fine. This is because they feel they have more control. Maybe they got you to back down, believe them, or doubt yourself. If you doubt yourself then you might go with what they tell you, be more compliant and slave-like. This makes them happy.”
So how should a victim of verbal abuse deal with this situation? The above mentioned Sarvmangala coped with her misery by finding solace in nature—in her case, her father’s rose garden. She also picked up the art of churning out delectable cuisine from her French sister-in-law. Soon she was much in demand from her relatives who came to feast on her exotic dishes. Often numerous guests would drop in at her home and she was an excellent hostess. Sarvamangala attributes her turnaround to her faith in the Divine. She strongly believes in the—what may be termed old-fashioned-- dictum, “ Have faith in God, he knows what is best for you. Always accept his will and life will be an adventure,” she says. Whatever the reason, she has beaten all odds and achieved so much with her ‘Dund’ hand that most of us with our two hands are unable to.
“Effective coping skills” is what psychologist Shalini recommends. In her words, “Sometimes it is enough to tell the abuser in a calm and composed manner ‘you cannot call me—‘ and walk away immediately after saying this. Although it is likely to work, there is no guarantee of this, and a lot depends on the body language and the tone in which it is said. If it is some old experience which continues to trouble the person, it often helps to take some friend or family member into confidence and talk about one’s feelings. If the person feels that a lot of damage to their self-esteem has been done because of repeated episodes of verbal abuse, especially by close relatives, or if they feel they do not want to reveal this vulnerable side of theirs to someone they know socially, it helps to see a psychologist and sort the issues out in complete confidence.”
So if you have been a punching bag and pushover for people too long with hate speech coming your way, isn’t it time you ended such toxic relationships?