Why is nobody talking about coercive control in the Royal Household?

Did the British Royal Family break the law?

“The greater good” chanted the automaton-like cult members of the Neighbourhood Watch Alliance in Hot Fuzz. That phrase has been repeating in my head ever since watching Oprah’s revelatory interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry.

“The greater good” was how the NWA excused multiple crimes, including murder. But it only dawned on me later why the interview made me so uneasy. I realised that I had an unsettling feeling that the British Royal Family may be breaking several human rights laws, and none of us is calling them out on it.

Here's what gave me the heebie-jeebies

So I asked myself how I would have assessed their behaviour if I had viewed it through the lens of any other family. And I could only conclude that, had Meghan disclosed her story to me when I was working as a paediatrician, I’d have contacted the social services. Because she wasn’t so much telling her story as making multiple troubling allegations of abuse.

Meghan talked about how, having been the victim of constant harassment by the British tabloid press, she felt suicidal while pregnant with Archie. And how she approached several people in the royal household for support, only to be rebuffed. Harry corroborated this later in the interview and said that he also requested help because he was desperate that history didn’t repeat itself. He admitted to approaching several people and escalating his concerns but was told: “it wouldn’t be good for the institution.”

It placed a mammoth burden on Harry, who was left shouldering solo responsibility for his pregnant wife’s emotional wellbeing while still feeling obliged to attend public engagements. Meghan recalls pleading with him not to leave her alone because she was afraid of what she might do. Being sandwiched between doing the right thing for his spouse when he knew that her needs were not being met and feeling pressure to attend public functions would place him at risk of moral injury as well.

Have you ever heard of moral injury before?

You may experience moral injury if you perpetrate, fail to prevent, bear witness to, or learn about acts that transgress deeply held moral beliefs and expectations. Moral injury is psychologically destructive and can give rise to intense feelings of guilt, shame, anger, anxiety, resentment, disillusionment, and helplessness. 

You may be shocked by how common this is in many disparate occupations. People suffer from moral injury when they feel coerced into doing something they know is wrong, like failing to support a vulnerable person to maintain the appearance of a respected institution.

Ironically, William, Kate and Harry champion the mental health charity Heads Together and encourage other people with mental health problems to open up and seek professional help. Both Harry and William have had their own mental health struggles following their mother’s death and have benefitted from psychological support.

How about compassion fatigue?

It’s also worth mentioning that Harry and other senior royals are at risk of compassion fatigue through their charitable work. You might experience compassion fatigue if you work in a caring profession. If you’re suffering from compassion fatigue, you’ll feel physically and emotionally drained. It’s often referred to as the “cost of caring” and has the unfortunate effect of depleting your empathy and compassion. This can have serious legal and ethical implications. I wonder whether compassion fatigue could have contributed to Meghan and Harry being treated with such a profound lack of empathy.

But preventing access to healthcare isn’t the only human rights concern that arose. Meghan also talked about how she was prevented from expressing herself. And how she was prevented from seeing her friends or going out whenever she felt like it. She even had to give up her passport and driving license.

Let’s face it, Meghan isn’t the first woman of colour to have her rights violated by the British Crown. And her family, descending from enslaved Africans on her mother’s side, was exploited for generations in America.

And there have been plenty of other examples of the palace controlling the behaviours of household and staff members.

Coercive control is a type of abuse that's frequently overlooked.

coercive control silences a woman

Women’s Aid provides a great definition of coercive control. This pattern of abuse is often encountered in domestic violence. But it’s also common in cults. Coercive control “is designed to make a person dependent by isolating them from support, exploiting them, depriving them of independence and regulating their everyday behaviour.” Coercive control is also a criminal offence. Some examples of coercive control include:

  • isolating you from your family and friends; 
  • taking control over aspects of your life, such as where you go, who you see, and what you can wear; 
  • and depriving you access to support services, such as medical services.

Child protection must take precedence... no matter who your relatives are.

Then there is the matter of revoking Meghan, Harry and Archie’s personal security. Which, as Meghan pointed out, has vast child protection ramifications. Having permitted the British tabloids to harass Meghan and make her persona non-grata, it was an interesting choice to leave the family unprotected while the threat to them remained the same. This feels punitive. Of course, it’s usually the parents’ responsibility to protect their children. But when a child’s health and safety is at risk because of the parents’ jobs, the firm shares some responsibility for protecting them. Here’s hoping Archie and any future children will be safe. But imagine how awkward a child protection conference with the Windsor family would be if anything did ever happen to them.

What is a corporate cult?

For me, the lines of evidence point to the British royal family being run as a corporate cult. Cults isolate you from friends, family and community while moulding your thoughts. They use coercion. Here are some of the ways corporate cults can turn your workplace into a vipers’ den. They can:

  • invoke authoritative status, 
  • engage in deception, 
  • use physical power, 
  • show favouritism, 
  • discriminate, 
  • or deny provision of rewards. 

Victims of cults feel demoralised and trapped, even when they don’t realise they’re in a cult. And again, workplace coercion becomes illegal when it prevents employees from exercising their human rights.

How many of us recognise human rights abuses when we see them?

Rather than being rare, human rights abuses are so commonplace they seldom even register. I can think of occasions my, and others’ human rights were violated by work. But at the time, I didn’t realise what was happening.

Most of us are vaguely aware that we have human rights. But few of us check what they are. Most of us also have massive blind spots when it comes to work, authority, time-honoured institutions, and celebrities. It’s easier for us to contort ourselves into painful positions to avoid seeing when people are being abused right under our noses than it is to have uncomfortable conversations about it. I’m as much to blame for this as anyone.

We’re left in this awkward space where people we admire and who do lots of charitable work can do some callous and even illegal things. When someone is consistently cruel, it’s easier to identify that they’re just being an asshole. But when we revere someone, recognising that they’ve done something wrong can feel like a betrayal that’s too great to overcome. Even though we know that none of us is perfect, we like to have our heroes. And we don’t always want to scrutinise their actions.

Can we be adults and point out problematic behaviours so that we can all grow together? Or is our first and most overwhelming reaction a defensive one where we victim-blame?

What should we do about coercive control?

We need to call for reform in the Royal Palace to abolish human rights violations. But it shouldn’t stop with the palace: we could all do with taking a few minutes to reflect on the cultures in our communities, work and our family dynamics to make sure we’re not missing red flags for coercive behaviours.

Changing this will be a massive challenge because cult culture prioritises compliance with rules over independent thinking and individuality. It penalises non-conformity and funnels people’s thoughts and behaviours into alignment, stifling creativity and innovation.

Breakthroughs will require courage, insight, vulnerability, honesty, and admitting there are problems. They’ll probably also involve asking for help. And we all need to recognise that change is difficult and takes time, commitment, and effort. For this degree of change, we may need accountability partners as well.

I was moved when Harry talked about his brother and father still being stuck in that life but not knowing that they were trapped. And I thought, “yes, they probably are trapped… in a cult. And they think what they’re doing is for the greater good.”

If you'd like to find out more about how moral injury ties in with burnout in work, check out this series of posts I did:

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