If you work in the tech industry, it’s likely that you’ve read the recent rumors, fueled by technology blogs and the press, that former TechCrunch Founder Michael Arrington allegedly abused more than one romantic partner over the past decade. The allegations that he both physically and emotionally abused previous girlfriends have been all over the web this weekend, from TechCrunch itself to the gossip blogs and the 140-bursts of the Twitterverse rank and file.
The vast majority of the discussions have focused on supposed acts of physical abuse. I’m not going to address any real or alleged physical abuse in this post. Physical abuse is illegal. It’s wrong under all circumstances. And it leaves scars on the body and mind that take years to erase. The lines are black and white. Enough people are writing and talking about this piece of the story in deep, deep detail.
What I do want to write about is Gawker’s subtle reference to the alleged emotional abuse suffered by Arrington’s ex-girlfriend, Meghan Asha. Gawker posts, “According to one friend, Asha openly shares with friends that Arrington had abused her—mostly emotionally, but sometimes physically.” This nonchalant and gossipy mention of emotional abuse was just tossed into the story as more “proof” that the relationship was sour. Read it again carefully and you’ll note that the reference to the alleged emotional abuse reads like a game of telephone – “she said that she said that…”
Seriously? Is this tech news or a teenage slumber party?
People, emotional abuse is real. It’s a thing. But it’s damn hard to prove, and even if you do, what’s the outcome going to be? Physical abuse has laws prohibiting it, and the visible marks on one’s body demonstrate to the world that you are a victim. But emotional abuse? There are no laws against demeaning your partner or making him or her feel badly about themselves. And how do you prove that you were abused in your heart and your mind? A very smart psychologist friend once told me that emotional abuse is the worst kind of abuse possible, because there are no outward signs to prove to others that you’ve been beaten down. A different very smart psychologist also said that the concept of emotional abuse is problematic, because its definition changes from person to person, and its very existence is questionable based on what one can and can’t tolerate from a partner.
So there you have it folks – according to the experts, emotional abuse could be legitimately soul-crushing, but actually could just be a figment of your imagination if you can’t tolerate negative emotions. What the heck? Do we live in 1955?
My point is that bringing up alleged emotional abuse in a gossipy manner doesn’t help anyone – when the context of information presented in journalism is so nonchalant like this, readers are less likely to weigh the topic as important. In fact, Gawker’s treatment of alleged emotional abuse further minimizes its importance because they have put the burden of proof on the alleged victim – just what do we expect her to say in response to this allegation by a friend? How do we expect her (or him – yes, men can be victims too, for the record) to combat the gossip with the truth? Our society sees emotional abuse as some grey area that’s partially in our heads and partially real, with a sliding scale of truth attached to each individual’s moral compass and emotional stability. Asha, the alleged victim, came out with a statement that said that the accounts provided by others were inaccurate. What else was she going to say? She had three choices – ignore the story and let the tech press make up the facts, deny the story and ask to be left alone, or attempt to explain in great and convincing detail that the power dynamic in her relationship with Mike Arrington met some nonexistent criteria for emotional abuse. Of course she’s going to deny them, because she has no other choice if she wants to move on.
So I implore those of you talking and writing about this personal situation between technology personalities to please, please, STOP treating the topic of emotional abuse with a gossipy tone. While you may believe you’re just reporting on the latest tech news, you’re actually minimizing the importance of this issue by placing allegations out in the wild that the alleged victim can never, ever prove. And to the “friends” in whom Ms. Asha confided – STOP telling reporters the intimate details of her personal life. While you may believe that putting these stories out there in the public is going to settle some score and shame the alleged perpetrator into an apology, the opposite is going to happen. Because our society refuses to see emotional abuse as a truly valid and shameful activity, generalities that “she said that he did xyz to her” do nothing except call into question your friend’s motivations. Which sucks. Because it’s not her fault. It’s just the way this world works – for now. And that has to change.
Writers covering this story should carefully consider the discussion of emotional abuse and the context in which it is presented. In personal relationships, only the people involved actually know what occurred. But as emotional abuse is, after all, so terrible yet also so misunderstood, we should change the conversation toward a better understanding of what it really is to prevent abuse from happening, educate partners and empower people that struggle with this challenge in their relationships. And here, the press can actually help make a difference. Let’s start with removing the gossip from this very important topic.