By Kasia Uzieblo, Ph.D
Oh Belgium, dear Belgium. A small European country, unknown to many. You can say a lot about Belgium, but you can't say it's boring here politically. For example, a politician has now been discredited for making racist statements toward the Roma community. He made these statements against some police officers on a night out. This news has dominated the Belgian news since Sept. 21, but it was not until Oct. 5 that the politician in question apologized for his behavior at a press conference. During this press conference, he acknowledged that he made wrong statements. Here he emphasized that he does not remember well what was said, that he was going through a heavy period and had drunk too much, and that the statements took place in yet an amicable atmosphere: “Even though it was drunk talk and even though he was joking, I still want to apologize.” During the press conference, he did not mention the word "racist." He would not understand should the public prosecutor prosecute him for racism. "That's up to the prosecutor's office. But it takes an intentional element. You have to want to hurt and offend someone. You really have to be intentional about a group. …that intentional element is absent with me. Also, the state I was in. You really shouldn't put any value on what was said there at the time."
In recent weeks several politicians have been discredited because of their behavior, and each time we heard the excuse: I was drunk. What does this have to do with sexual violence you may think? Well, because it is a behavioural and cognitive pattern we recognize in many clients. Now take the following example. This same politician had coincidentally previously been discredited in the context of sexually transgressive behavior. Although these cases have since been dropped because of a lack of evidence, his arguments during a TV interview still resonate. When asked if he had engaged in transgressive behavior, he stated that it is difficult to determine what transgressive behavior actually is, since that boundary is different for everyone. In the same breath, he stated that it is essential that others have to indicate when this boundary is crossed.
To be clear, I do not mean to imply that this politician nor others I’m referring to have exhibited sexually transgressive behavior, but the rationalizations one hears (e.g., I don't remember it well, I had too much to drink, it wasn't meant to be hurtful, it was not intentional, others have to set boundaries), we also often hear from our clients. And in that sense, their sense of responsibility or rather, lack of, is relevant, also to our field.
We often observe similar defensive reactions and rationalizations in our clients, and this raises several issues and questions. People in public office, such as politicians, should be well aware that they are role models. Obviously, they are also human beings, and people make mistakes. But when you make mistakes, you must take full responsibility and minimize neither the behavior nor the consequences. This is also what we focus on, among other things, while treating our clients. But what are our words about taking responsibility worth, when our clients turn on the TV, hear similar rationalizations from politicians and see that they can get away with it? Another question I’ve been struggling with is the apparent ambiguity that we, both as a society and as professionals, assume in this. Why do we go along with myth-strengthening and cognitive distortions of some people while we condemn the rationalizations of others – and certainly of the target group we work with? Moreover, within the group of people who committed sexual offences we see that we differentiate: with some offenders we seem to accept such arguments as it were, while with others who may be less empowered, less eloquent, have less status and/or have committed more heinous acts, we do not accept these rationalizations at all. My argument is not that we should accept this passing on of responsibility in everyone, but rather that we ourselves adopt ambiguous attitudes, and by doing so, we give ambiguous messages to our clients: some may cross boundaries when drunk, but not you. And it is this ambiguity that we must dare to question, as a society, but also as professionals.