When I was a child, my family kept rabbits. We kept them in hutches in the backyard. They rarely got out to play or interact with anybody. They were confined to small hutches for their entire lives.
When I got older, and began to experience confinement myself, I began to see that this was wrong, but still did nothing for the rabbit who lived in a cage now high up in a tree to keep him away from the dog. I was still a child, but I was more aware that rabbits must not belong in small hutches in backyards.
As an adult, I came across information from the House Rabbit Society, which I’m now a member of. They said plainly that keeping a rabbit confined to a backyard hutch is like doing the same to a cat, or (proportionally increased) a human. They are a social species and solitary confinement is awful for them. They need room to run around and play and that is not possible in a hutch.
Nobody in our family bore the rabbits any malice. But each rabbit lived out their life in solitary confinement, and died in solitary confinement. I have experienced long-term solitary confinement, and it is not just the lack of socialization, but the lack of anything to do, the looking forward to only meals as the high point of the day, if you get those… it is highly unpleasant. It must be more unpleasant for a member of a prey species that depends on others of its kind for protection and survival at all times.
I talked to my parents about it when I found out. My mother said, “I had no idea. I had no idea.” My father said, when I brought up animal neglect, “I think I know what you are going to talk about. And… you had help [in neglecting the rabbit].”
I know that I’m now going to live forever with the fact that one animal that I could have done something about, spent his life and died in highly unpleasant circumstances, ones I know the unpleasantness of because I have been subjected to them, only he had no way out. That is the rabbit from when I was older. Aptly named, Reality.
When I was growing up, my parents told me stories about people who “let their rabbits run around the house and had them litter-box trained”. The idea always struck them as somewhat ludicrous, a little crazy. Again, they bore rabbits no malice. They would not view themselves as cruel to animals. And yet until I became old enough to learn about it, I absorbed some pretty strange values about animals (including that it was okay to dump a rabbit by the side of the road in his old age, and that, having spent his life in a cage, he would still live a wonderful life in the woods and not, say, starve or get eaten almost immediately).
That is the meaning of power.
It is not comfortable. It is very possible to get defensive about it. It is scary to wake up to it. Much as Dave Hingsburger has described in Mourning Has Broken, it took a long time to fully realize what had happened.
When I posted this story elsewhere when I was finding out about this stuff, one person got very angry at me. He told me that he didn’t care if I’d found out about how things really were, it was too late, and he’d never trust me. I told him that I didn’t mind that because it might just be one of the consequences of having mistreated a rabbit, even as a kid. I will never, after all, get a chance to make his life any better, or to apologize to him. He’s dead.
I feel bad about it, but feeling bad won’t actually do anything, so I try to cut that off. What will do something is changing my ideas about power, about how I relate to the world. What will do something is telling other people what happened, what can happen, to rabbits everywhere. What will do something is applying this knowledge to other areas of my life.
There are a lot of myths about power.
One of the ones Hingsburger describes is the myth of not having any power, and therefore not being able to abuse that power. “Front line” staff often think they have no power because they are at the bottom of the staff hierarchy. But they are still above inmates/clients in the hierarchy. They can use their “powerlessness” as an excuse not to examine how they are treating other people. When I had power over that rabbit, I had power over almost nobody and nothing else in my life. But I still had power over that rabbit and I misused it, not out of intentional abuse but of neglect. (My father has pointed out that I had help. I did. But I still have some of the responsibility.)
Another myth about power (which I don’t know if it’s in Power Tools or not, because every time I buy a copy it gets snagged by staff and never returned) is that if you’re a good enough person, you will never misuse power. In fact, the more power you have over someone’s life, the more likely you will be to misuse it. Even if you love the person from the bottom of your heart.
In Same, Different, Human (a good review as well as a place to snag a Power Tools quote), Cal Montgomery says (quoting Hingsburger):
“I don’t believe that most people realize,” he tells us, that “they have power,” that “they routinely abuse that power,” that “their behaviour is invisible only to themselves,” and that “their responsibility isn’t diminished because they ‘didn’t mean to’ ” (Power Tools, p. 4). That’s not merely a description of most “direct care” staff; it’s a description of most people.
When I say that I bore the rabbit no malice, by the way, I am not trying to say that to make myself into a better person. I am saying that because it’s all the more horrifying to a lot of people the amount of damage we can do without meaning to, the amount of power we can wield without being consciously aware of it, the amount of evil things that can happen in the name of good or neutral intentions.
Some people will never force a rabbit to endure the suffering I forced (by neglect) on Reality. But everyone will be in some situation where they had power to change something bad and did not use it, or had power and misused it to do wrong. And many of us will be on the other end of it. My example is extreme. But it still happens that those without as much power in a given situation will have power exercised over them, and sometimes it will not be in a good way.
Recently I was describing the clinical words that are used on autistic people, and how there’s a difference between an adult with the power to define themselves, and a child looking up to caregivers and hearing them use certain definitions on them. Someone accused me of objectifying parents, of accusing him of abuse, and several other things.
Being aware of the power we have in the lives of others is not objectifying, and it is not necessarily an accusation of abuse. Abuse of power does not always result in the kind of abuse that people talk about as in “child abuse”.
But being unaware of power is a fast strategy to abusing it. I used to have a staff person who viewed all people as on an artificially equal plane when it came to power, she became terrified at even the mention of her having more power than some other people. The concept that, for instance, she can walk down the street without getting picked up by the cops, was more than she could take.
And she did abuse power, even though she was not abusive of people in a way that legally counts as abuse or anything like that, she was not an “abuser”. She abused power in subtle ways, controlled people, including people she loved, in subtle ways, and because she was unwilling to think about power, she was unable to curb her abuse of it. When people brought power up, she said, “I’m not that kind of person!” As if there is a specific kind of person without the potential to abuse power, and as if trying not to be “the kind of person who could abuse power” would magically make her someone who couldn’t.
When I talk about power, I am not dehumanizing anyone. People may disagree with me over how to use it, and I expect that. What surprises me still, for some reason, is the unwillingness to look at power and how it is used.
When the people with a lot of power over you are people that you know love you, screwups when it comes to power are worse. It was worse to hear from my father that I was “backsliding” when I could not do something anymore, than it was to hear it from professionals. It is worse when I am unable to type and my best friend screws something up in an attempt at translating what is happening for me, or screws up at FCing me, than when a random stranger screws something up. It is worse to hear certain things from people who love us. Their love does not make them immune to misuse (intentional or unintentional) of power, but it can make it more agonizing and problematic for us when the slipups happen.
Being a rabbit in a human household means that you have almost no ability to escape if the humans try to confine you. Being a human unable to talk back, or less able to talk back, or less able to filter information, means you have less ability to change certain ways you are being treated. A mother or father can go through years of their life innocently and lovingly describing their son, now a teenager, now an adult, as “having the mind of a 2-year-old child” and “utterly incapable of thought,” and he might be able to do very little to stop them. This is part of power too.
Misusing power does not always make you an “abuser,” nor does it always make you any less loving than the next person. But it is… a human thing to do. People do this. It happens. It doesn’t make it right. But if misusing power makes someone a bad person, then every last human being is a bad person, and I don’t think that is true. What is true is that we all have the potential to screw these things up, but we also have the potential to deal with those screwups. When I point these things out about power, it is not meant as a personal insult. It is only meant to point out things that happen to everyone. As I said in another post, it doesn’t mean I’m calling you a bad person, I’m just calling you human, and I don’t hold myself exempt from any of this.
I am also not trying to make anyone feel guilty. Feeling guilty is not useful after you’ve been reminded enough of what you’ve done, or have the potential to do. Figuring out what to do, is more useful.