Relative Abstraction and Concreteness: The example of the non-apology

“Impersonalisation abounds in the language of bureaucracy, a form of the organisation of human activity constituted on the denial of responsibility, and governed by impersonal procedures which, once put in place, are wellnigh impermeable to human agency.”

Theo van Leeuwen, The Representation of Social Actors

In my most recent blog post, I introduced a catalogue I have begun building, on the subtler ways that language can encode and enact abuse. In this post, I explain the strategies of relative concreteness and abstraction, particularly in concealing violence, in dodging perpetrator responsibility and in victim-blaming.

Relative concreteness and abstractness are the extent to which human agency is concealed and/or to which social actors are represented by qualities rather than specific acts.

Hobbs, 2018

Abstraction is a type of impersonalisation. It involves focusing on general character qualities rather than on specific actions, located in specific moments. It “occurs when social actors are represented by means of a quality assigned to them by and in the representation” (van Leeuwen). Relative abstraction and concreteness are useful in establishing or minimising guilt.

Let’s see how language accomplishes this, using a few authentic examples.

The first example, which I’ve also included in the catalogue itself, comes from an Orthodox Presbyterian Church committee report, which I discuss in fuller detail here.

Like all texts, even very short ones, there is so much to say. But for now, consider the contrast I’ve highlighted above, using red and green. In the catalogue, I note that in this section of a longer text, the committee members show they are willing to acknowledge specific instances of “deriding and mocking” but reluctant to acknowledge that such men “are misogynistic.”

In other words, they will admit that otherwise loving men “resorted” to abusive behaviour (look how this verb distances these men from the actions of deriding and mocking), in a limited time frame, at specific times. But the report writers are unwilling to acknowledge that the members of online hate group Genevan Commons behaved abusively enough, over enough time, to constitute a pattern which revealed something essential to these members’ identity.

Put simply: They might have behaved abusively, but they aren’t abusive. This behaviour doesn’t show who these people really are. It doesn’t really say that much about them.

This takes us to Point 1 of relative abstraction and concreteness: To conceal violence, to obscure responsibility, use language to make violence concrete (limited in time and scope), and euphemisms help.

What language helps us do this? If someone wants to conceal violence and minimise perpetrator responsibility, they will often specify an exact time frame, using verbs and other language that locate an event in a particular time. They may use past tense (It’s confined to memory now). And they will likely object to any abstractions of that violence. See above how the committee members reject the idea that anyone would “identify” certain members of an online hate group with hatred of women. Where are the victims in this, one wonders? Where is their ongoing pain? It is suppressed, excluded. Move on, victims.

Levels of abstractness can also be identified by the grammatical choices that people make: verbs are considered to be more concrete grammatical terms, whereas adjectives and nouns are considered more abstract – as they convey information not only about the action itself, but also about the dispositions of an actor, predictability and stability of the action, etc.

Michal Bilewicz , Anna Stefaniak , Marta Witkowska , and Karolina Hansen. Source

Let’s consider now this public statement by former The Crowded House (TCH) church leader Tim Chester, who worked alongside the now infamous Acts 29 CEO and pastor of TCH Steve Timmis, about whom you can read here.

Limited analysis of Chester’s October 2020 response to the Thirtyone:eight Report on The Crowded House

There are again many things I could say about this text. Upon reading it, it becomes clear that Chester means this to be an apology, despite the title of his post, which suggests otherwise. But what jumped out to me next is what I’ve underlined in black in the image. This marks the beginning of Chester’s concealing of violence and obscuring the responsibility of church leaders who committed spiritual abuse. How does he do this? By use of the passive verb form and the reference to the institution rather than to people as perpetrators. Tim Chester apologises that The Crowded House hurt all of you.

This sets the stage for the rest of this apology-cum-statement, where Chester relies on a combination of euphemism to conceal violence (“things in the report,” “the action”, “this”, “my failings”, “important lessons”) and his highly limited admission of guilt. Primarily, he has the quality of being “unaware”. This is as good as it gets, for the victims, I’m afraid. The rest of Chester’s guilt is made simultaneously concrete, limited to certain time periods (“At times I failed”) and vague (“I failed to take the action I should have taken.”). What action? Which times? In connection to which victims? I guess Chester is unaware of that too. All this is consistent with Point 1 above.

But there is another strategy at work here.
Point 2 of relative abstraction and concreteness: To maximise innocence and deny responsibility, make positive qualities abstract. And in a religious context, the invocation of sacred authority helps.

Note that Chester is “deeply sorry.” He acknowledges, he offers “sincere apologies.” In other words, he has the abstract quality of being sorry. His offer of sincere apologies is likewise unbounded, limitless. Chester goes on to say that there are “important lessons” for him to learn. Sounds good, maybe? But about what? Thanks to the consistent use of euphemism, and the highly concrete admission of euphemised guilt, he has said almost nothing of substance here. We are meant to see him as endlessly sorry but for a vague set of mistakes he made “at times.” But look at the time frame in question. Years and years of Steve Timmis and his network of allies spiritual abusing members of the TCH congregation.

The key to understanding this entire apology, in my opinion, is in Chester’s clearly articulated, timeless commitment to the vision of TCH. And note the sacred authority he pulls in for support at the end. Listen up, victims! Chester is praying. With other elders. At this specific church. The leaders at which have an abstract, “on-going” confidence in his leadership, even having read the report. So if you are still upset at Chester after reading the report, what’s your problem? Make no mistake. This is both a subtle undermining of the report itself but likewise an implicit form of victim-blaming alongside a powerful denial of responsibility.

Someone might argue that since this is a public statement, Chester cannot be more specific nor admit to much. However, one wonders, what is the point of this statement, really? As I asked in my last post, whose interests does this text serve? Not Steve Timmis’s victims, in my opinion. Not those who had to move to another country to begin their recovery. Not those whose trauma at the hands of The Crowded House leaders will be with them the rest of their lives.

There are other facets to the relative abstraction and concreteness strategy. The reverse of Points 1 and 2 above can also be used to blame victims. For example, if you want to minimise a victim’s positive qualities, you make them concrete. And if you want to blame a victim, you attribute negative qualities to them. There are examples of this in the abstraction category in the catalogue.

As for Tim Chester’s statement, what would make this non-apology begin to look more like a genuine apology? What do the victims think, I wonder?


Update: A few more thoughts …

Thread about relative abstractness/concreteness 1/5

This morning my daughter said if she had a load of gold bars, she’d only give a nugget to her brother. I don’t think you’d do that, I said. You are a generous person.

2/5
I reframed her negative concrete action by reminding her of who she is, who she should be.

3/5
When violence comes to light, a community often distances themselves from it using relative concreteness. They may admit (when forced) that violence happened but it was an isolated incident. Not part of the character of the perpetrator/community. We aren’t like that, they say

4/5
The difference between these two situs (me w/my daughter, a community w/a violent person) is subtle but significant.

In the first, abstraction is used to shield from violence. In the other, it’s wielded to minimise it.

5/5
When violence comes to light, a community must say:

We don’t want to be a people who commit/support violence. We’ll ensure justice, reflect on how violence happened so our community’s actions (concreteness) better reflect the kind of community we want to be (abstraction).

Originally tweeted by Dr. Valerie Hobbs (@vhobbs5) on March 2, 2021.

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