DARVO (Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender) is a tactic commonly employed by individual abusers and institutions
The acronym DARVO is becoming more common in the public lexicon. It stands for deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender. It’s most commonly used to help us to recognize the behaviours of abusive individuals and institutions. But after listening to an interview with Jennifer Freyd, Ph.D., who coined the term, I realized that the concept has far broader implications.
To understand how DARVO functions, let’s examine the actions of former film producer and convicted sex offender Harvey Weinstein. When his predatory behaviour first came to light, he denied the allegations. He then used the press to attack and discredit the women who had come forward.
By the time Weinstein’s case came to trial, he was a shrivelled-up man, barely able to walk, claiming that he had done so much to advance these people’s careers, and now they had turned on him.
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Why do people like Weinstein use DARVO? Because it creates great confusion and often works.
We also see DARVO at the institutional level. The Catholic Church denied that members of its clergy were sexually abusing children. It tried to attack the people pressing charges, claiming they just wanted the church’s money. They portrayed the abusers as “men who had given so much to their communities and now were being humiliated and forced to stand trial.”
Corporations use DARVO when they are accused of causing environmental disasters: the legal system has even allowed them to lay charges against the land defenders who bring their crimes to light.
It can even be argued that our society is built on DARVO. To this day, colonizers commit crimes against humanity and then shoot people when they stand up for their rights. They then say, “We did so much for you. You are such ungrateful heathens!”
The Oka crisis 33 years ago was classic DARVO. Mohawk rights to their territory were denied. The Sûreté du Québec attacked the Mohawk when they refused to leave their land, and eventually, the Canadian Army was called out. Oh, but the white citizens of Oka and the Montreal area became the victims because the Mohawk blockades inconvenienced them.
We can also see DARVO in Florida. Educators created a curriculum to teach children about racism and how to respond proactively. The state denied there is anything racist in its history that children need to know and attacked educators and the curriculum, even banning books. Those who ban books claim to be concerned adults looking out for the welfare of children.
Doctor Freyd has done the world a tremendous service by giving us a conceptual framework for understanding the reaction of abusive individuals and institutions. She has made their behaviour predictable. When we know what to expect, we can respond proactively.
Lawyers, counsellors, and judges can be trained to deal effectively with DARVO in families. When corrupt corporations pillage the environment, we can expect a coverup and counter-allegations. We can expect the same from powerful governments oppressing indigenous populations and from racist groups targeting minorities.
Of course, honest and reasonable individuals, governments, corporations, and citizen groups exist. They will typically respond to accusations with an open ear, accept accountability when necessary, and try to resolve the issue in a mutually beneficial manner. Canadian parliamentarians from opposing parties, for example, used to collaborate and come up with solutions that were good for ordinary citizens.
Reacting with denial, attacking the victim, and then making oneself out to be the victim is classic DARVO, and a virtual admission of guilt. We need to see it as such.
Gerry Chidiac specializes in languages, genocide studies and works with at-risk students. He is the recipient of an award from the Vancouver Holocaust Education Centre for excellence in teaching about the Holocaust.
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