There was a time when a criticism directed by a man towards his wife was just that, a criticism. But today, a critical remark delivered in a sarcastic tone is regarded by sections of the political class as a marker for domestic abuse. Recently, Seema Malhotra, Labour’s new shadow anti-domestic violence minister, asserted that husbands who tell their spouse that she is fat may well be guilty of domestic abuse. According to Malhotra, such criticism may well be ‘part of a pattern of controlling behaviour’ which ‘leaves people feeling fearful and terrorised in their own homes’.
Of course, criticising someone’s size may well cause upset. Partners often make hurtful comments to one another, which, in some instances, can make people feel humiliated and even devastated. But when did the emotional interaction between husband and wife become the business of politicians and the state?
Even at the best of times, human relationships are fraught with tension and conflict. In such encounters, disputes and criticism are common and those involved will often try to have their way by seeking to dominate or master the situation. Malhotra uses the term ‘controlling behaviour’ to pathologise this attempt to influence a spouse. However, whatever one thinks of the all-too-human passion to dominate and control one’s partner, playing mind games and emotional manipulation is a basic part of everyday life. Such behaviour may well be unpleasant, and it may well be unworthy of someone who aspires to be in a sensitive and supportive relationship. But a crime? A matter for government?
The idea that public institutions should assess and decide which criticisms are okay and which should be punished reeks of soft totalitarianism. Once the state has the power to take sides in arguments between partners there will be little left of the private sphere. Once the emotional tension between partners becomes a matter for public adjudication and regulation, our intimacies will be compromised and, ultimately, corrupted.
The casual manner with which Malhotra recast a partner’s critical remarks as abuse is symptomatic of a growing tendency to represent abuse as the defining feature of personal relationships and of domestic life. In recent decades, the inflation of the term abuse has acquired grotesque proportions. From Malhotra’s perspective, emotional tension, conflict, criticism or controlling behaviour will sooner or later crystallise into violence and physical abuse. In the language of Philip K Dick’s The Minority Report, criticism constitutes a ‘precrime’ – the first act in the drama of domestic abuse.