While this article explores sublimation as a concept, as well as how it fits into the behavior of IPV perpetrators, to ground this conversation it's important to begin by defining and considering microaggressions.
Microaggressions, as a conceptual phenomena, were first identified by Chester M. Pierce in 1970 when he put words to his experience of subtle forms of racism that are ever present. A general definition of microagressions are that they consist of communications (verbal or nonverbal) toward people in oppressed groups that subtly enforce stereotypes, imply inferiority for the oppressed person's group, imply superiority of the oppressor group, and are often unconscious or unintentional behavior from someone in a privileged group (several examples can be found here). Further attempts to explore the mechanics behind microaggressions have yielded several additional components to the analysis. Derald Wing Sue proposed three subcategories of microaggressions:
- Microassaults: consciously chosen behavior (verbal or nonverbal) by an oppressor to display disdain, disapproval, superiority, or enforce inferiority of an oppressed person. These displays are "subtle" to allow for deniability, or claim that the oppressed person "misunderstood" or took the behavior out of context - making it dangerous to an oppressed person to call out because the thrust behind the behavior is to threaten and cause fear;
- Microinsults: demeaning comments and behavior toward an oppressed person that seem to be complimentary yet convey rudeness, insensitivity, or an attack on the person's identity. This subcategory is challenging due to the presentation being one of support for the oppressed person, but the energy behind the behavior is to attack, which makes it difficult to call out and address as well as to defend against;
- Microinvalidations: subtle exclusions and dismissals of oppressed people's experiences, identities, and individuality. This subcategory is particularly insidious as it undermines an oppressed person's agency by characterizing their decisions as unimportant, their opinions irrelevant, and their behavior irrational.
It is important to consider that each of the previous subcategories end up working well for oppressors because they provide support for JUSTIFIED ATTACKS toward oppressed people, SELF-CENTERED REDIRECTION by insisting a statement was a compliment and expressing hurt due to being called out, or DEVELOPING INCREASED DISMISSAL of the oppressed person if they call out the behavior.
Some examples of these dynamics from perpetrators of IPV:
- Comments an IPV perpetrator makes under his breath about a victim/survivor that are demeaning or blaming;
- Making a victim/survivor flinch, then laughing about it;
- Crude jokes at a victim/survivor's expense;
- Undermining a victim/survivor's connections to family/friends by telling them derogatory details under a pretense of "care and concern";
- Compliments about services the victim/survivor performs for the IPV perpetrator that have little or nothing to do with her personhood, identity, or personality;
- Backhanded compliments that are barbed, such as "I know you're better than this," or "I know you love our children, but..."
- "You're such a smart person, how could you do something so stupid?"
- "That's not how it happened, and you know it!"
- "I was only trying to help you and you got things all twisted up!"
- "Why are you always so angry? If you weren't so angry all the time, maybe we wouldn't have all these troubles!"
- "You can't make any decisions, then you complain when I make them for you - what do you want?"
- Demands that the victim/survivor just tell him what to do, yet always finding reasons why those needs aren't valid, have problems, or are unfair.
So what do we do about this? It's a real thing, victims/survivors of IPV feel these microaggressions constantly, yet it is a huge struggle to guide perpetrators to be able to identify that their behavior is oppressive on this level. Even if a perpetrator stops all direct violence and abuse, they may continue to be indirectly abusive, entitled, controlling, and harmful on several layers that can cause fear, pain, and ongoing damage to their family, since microaggressions are a foundational layer of harm toward an oppressed person.
This is, sadly where sublimation helps provide insight into why microaggressions are so pervasive within IPV and in other layers of oppressive behavior.
Sublimation, in this context, is a term that is infrequently used. There are many reasons for this, but I think it is predominantly due to the fact that it is strongly associated with the psychoanalytic approaches of Sigmund Freud. In general, his theory was that individuals have inappropriate urges and to keep from doing harmful things, they have to sublimate those urges by doing things that meet those needs in more appropriate ways.
Consider the base thrust of microaggressions - in essence they enforce entitlement by oppressor classes to feel blameless, to feel superior, to put oppressed people in their place.
I argue that all of these things are about maintaining the status quo.
A reason why perpetrators of IPV continue to harm their families, and why their partners continue to stay within that relationship are that perpetrators have excellent radars of what they can and can't get away with. They are good at knowing where boundaries are, and how to continually push them in small increments. In fact, the best manipulators are able to lead others to think they are making their own decisions, when the manipulator has set the environment so that choice may be the only one available (or the best choice of many bad choices).
The status quo of intimate partner violence is to make everything benefit the person who is abusive, oppressive, and has a pattern of ongoing harm. Even if they don't see it, ultimately that is what all these microaggressions serve to do. Keep things going the way they "should" be going (i.e. the way that serves the interest of the person being abusive).
As sublimation is the process of shifting inappropriate behavior into something more appropriate - microaggressions continually serve oppressors by pushing oppressed people into a status quo where the oppressor has greater agency, control, superiority, and value. In essence, one of the driving forces of oppression is to dominate oppressed people through sublimation. The goal is to force the oppressed to sublimate their (justified) outrage/hurt/agency into passivity - force them to conform to situations that constantly benefit those with power, those with privilege. When oppressed people respond, any response they have can be stuffed into a negative stereotype which blames the oppressed for any pain or discomfort suffered by the oppressor.
We're all human beings, we all have layers of privilege in different places. Think about one of those layers of privilege you have in your life. When interacting with a person who lacks the privilege you have, has there ever been a time you have said or done something you felt was a bit "off"? Maybe it was because you noticed a subtle response by that person, maybe it was because you reflected on what you did and you realized it was problematic? However you experienced that momentary reflection, were you defensive? Did you dismiss the other person's response because in your mind you had innocent intent? Did you get angry at the oppressed person's response because it made you feel bad, or at the very least uncomfortable?
Considering current events, where resistance is growing toward oppressive powers, oppressive privileges, and oppressive stereotypes - how do microaggressions fit in? How do well-meaning people STILL work to sublimate the experiences of the oppressed? Here's how: "Can't you protest peacefully?" "Why do THEY have to be so destructive?" "Why can't they just follow the law?" "Can't you tell me what I can do as a white person?" "Hey, I have ideas, why don't you listen to me first?"
These are ongoing complications for intervention work. They are also ongoing complications for antioppression work of all kinds.
Working against microaggressions requires active efforts by oppressor classes. Some examples:
- Ask others in your oppressor class for ideas on how to be supportive of those oppressed by your privilege, or at the very least ask oppressed people what they would like to be supported in their efforts without taking them over;
- REFLECT on your privilege, identify it, understand it;
- Lend your support to oppressed people by encouraging, listening, being guided by, and following their needs, their experiences, and their ideas;
- BELIEVE experiences of oppressed people - do not question the legitimacy of their claims;
- Do not expect oppressed people to trust you, listen to you, agree with you, or even care about your opinions or feelings;
- Don't make it about you;
- Identify how you feel superior to others - this is a HUMAN trait, we all have it. If you don't think you are superior to anyone, you are lying to yourself. It is a dynamic of privilege to think you are equal to everyone despite equality only existing as a fleeting and isolated experience;
- Identify how you think others are less than you - again, this is HUMAN. Sometimes we have superiority on a certain level, but other times we might just think certain people are somehow less valid - that's the "less than" belief, and if you know where those exist in your life, you can limit and recognize when they occur;
- Identify where you think you DESERVE something from others - it can be small, it can be large, but like the previous two, human beings all have a sense of deserving certain things, whether it be responses, compliments, attention, resources, patterns of tradition, or any number of things that you might take for granted because you see that as just a given part of your life;
- Constantly learn about other cultural experiences, history behind the experiences of others, and your own history that guides your beliefs and values. Find differences and honor them in yourself and others. Make other's experiences VALID, even if (especially if) they are radically different or even opposing your own.