Criminalizing emotional abuse will do more harm than good

Determining which behaviors legitimately meet the criteria established by the anti-emotional abuse legislation without prosecuting false positives or ambiguous cases will be difficult. And for what?

Part of the bill is redundant, forbidding already-illegal physical and sexual abuse. The psychological control and coercion parts would be the legislation’s new contribution to the criminal code.

Retributive punishment and preventing recidivism seem to be the primary goals in criminal law, with rehabilitation of the offender often receiving lip service but taking the back seat in practice. Protracted he-said, she-said arguments in court over who felt what when, and why, are not really going to benefit emotional abuse victims very much at all. Even if some speech acts are not protected by the First Amendment (e.g., yelling “fire!” in a crowded theater), we must take care to leave as much room as possible for merely reprehensible speech. When not a part of other already-criminal offenses, like assault and rape, these speech acts are protected.

This particular anti-emotional abuse legislation and other attempts at it are bound to be simultaneously over-broad and under-specific. Its content may unjustifiably erode classes of protected speech, without delivering tangible benefits to the victims of emotional abuse. We could better improve the lot of these victims by making it easier for them to bring civil, not criminal, claims against their abusers – with outcomes that involve restitution instead of jail time. Making people feel bad, even deliberately and systematically, should not be a crime.

Pamela Stubbart is a Young Voices Advocate and an independent knowledge worker and philosopher based in New York City. She holds a BA in philosophy, magna cum laude, and has studied philosophy and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.