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Literature and Abuse

Literature and Abuse

Published Jun 15, 2024 Updated Jun 15, 2024 Culture
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Literature and Abuse

Translated by Owen Good

 

Typical reactions: 1) that happens everywhere, 2) that’s never happened here. The essential message of both being to leave the issue well alone. An issue which, of course, does not exist. I want to write about the importance of maintaining boundaries. About why there’s no point in making light of abuse, and why it’s important for the domestic literary milieu too to take concrete steps. Sooner rather than later.

I’ve been publishing for twenty years, and have been taking part (with ever less intensity) in the various social spaces and events of Hungarian literature for roughly as much time. Student camps, readings, public talks, literary camps, private talks, workshops, supervising committees, professional events, university lessons. It is also indirectly related to literature that a couple of years ago I started going to self-defence classes. Because in my twenties there was a known abuser within my circle of friends and acquaintances. A writer, still active today. An award-winner, in fact – more on the connotations of that a bit later. Roughly two dozen of my colleagues were affected by this person’s harassment, insults, and physical threats. Men and women equally. All of which has continued since then, the most recent story emerged this autumn. These facts are known, after a quick headcount I realise that a minimum of one hundred people have been in some way affected, be it as victims, or as bystanders, witnesses. That’s just one example. My question is why does the Hungarian literary milieu have no self-defence skills? How could it be that someone whose violent behaviour is widely known can march on, what’s more, with a seemingly positive correlation between aggression and professional success? What statement is being made by an artistic-intellectual milieu that, from the first warning sign, not only fails to signal that violent behaviour is unacceptable, but actually rewards it too? Is this cowardice or life insurance? That’s a social environment that I’d rather not call home.

Over the years and decades the similarly shocking stories emerge, with a growing list of perpetrators, typically verging on comedic: breaking a glass in another’s face, threatening another with a gun, knocking over another from behind, following another home at night, telephone harassment, sexual harassment of young women and men by more mature peers, choking, or harassment of minors from behind the veil of talent development. And one of the vilest sentences that our literary milieu could utter on the matter: “you have to grin and bear it.” From another “famous name”. Look, not only do you not have to grin and bear it, but it’s time to act so that these official, semi-official spaces, or rather communities recognise and spread awareness of the various abuses. The logical consequence of which however is (or would be) understanding that they have a means to prevent such abuses. Because if the multiple harassment story is (made to be) seen as a mere individual outlier, although discomfort is somewhat reduced, nevertheless it says something primarily about the professional and social system. A system which provides an opportunity for these things to happen again and again without the milieu giving any adaptive reaction to the emergent problems. It would be nice if we could set an example. Because communities are perfectly capable of maintaining boundaries.

What’s more, there’s no need to wait for the screenplay so typical of this country, wherein this matter won’t reach the level of public discussion until it’s too late. Until irreparable damage is inflicted even decades later that won’t have healed. In countless situations, from an adult perspective, everyone clearly sees when a boundary has been crossed. This clarity of sight gets hazier when a community’s members are heavily conditioned, socialized to do something else: specifically to look the other way, or to be happy as long as they don’t reach any harm. And to keep quiet until that point. The veiled meaning of phrases like “that’s never happened here,” or “I’ve never experienced anything like that anywhere” is typically: “I always looked the other way when that kind of thing happened,” or “I wasn’t able to recognise what was going on, I was so used to the abusive environment,” perhaps: “I’m affected too, be it as an aggressor or as a victim.” Besides for the practice of maintaining healthy boundaries, public discussion would also be important towards dissolving that cognitive dissonance which leads to many believing it’s much more important to show solidarity with the aggressors, the perpetrators, than to support and help the victims. (Not long ago, on a Hungarian news website,  a clear and precise article was published on this topic, focusing on female victims.)

It would be worthwhile in certain systems of relation (parent-child, teacher-student, boss-employee, mentor-mentee, director-actor/dancer etc.) to openly declare that the responsibility is always held by whoever possesses the dominant position in the power hierarchy. That violence exists on a scale and doesn’t always begin with a punch or with abasement. That there are institutions which can offer help. It would be beneficial to somehow formalise these insights and practices for prevention in workplaces and in more flexibly operating professional environments such as literature. The reality is that everyone primarily in their own environments and their own circles can have a concrete effect, they can speak up or act against abuse. As long as we fail to do so, the next steps are unrealistic. Then there is nothing to build on, socially speaking either.

Since 2019 I’ve been working with Zita Rihay-Kovács in the Safe Spaces (Biztonságos terek) project, whose goal is the prevention of abuse in the workplace, for example through educating in codes of ethics and good practices. The goal is quite simple: “Everybody who enters the workplace, the school, or professional environment should feel safe. Let’s know our rights. Let there be protection, help and support for those community members against those who abuse their power, who exploit the vulnerable position of others, and who by association help to cover up abuse.” It would be relatively easy to pass on this knowledge to literary communities too. Should anyone be interested. I believe that this kind of work is important principally because of the youngest members. That they arrive into a social environment with a different mentality – if that was lacking in our own time.

We can’t deny that in many cases the passionate disavowal of the matter (also) stems from the fact that the given individual isn’t ready or able to reflect on the abuses of power, appropriations, harassment, violation, assault that happened in their own life. Men and women both. And on the next level: the environment (family, work, society) isn’t ready either to face up to the stories of harassment involving some of its members. But the picture only remains dark as long as we pretend that nothing happened. If we keep quiet. If we lie.  If we look the other way. If we reward violent behaviour. This is an individual responsibility in every professional, social and other community context.

Eyes wide open.

 

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