It’s 2014, so this statement probably won’t be all that surprising to you: the way we talk about things matters.
We’ve likely all heard counter-arguments and annoyed protest from those who wish to believe that words are just words – often to excuse themselves for saying things with harmful implications. But words aren’t just words. Language provides the building blocks for meaning, and meaning informs action. So words are actually incredibly powerful.
We use language to understand our experiences and the experiences of others. The understandings that we gather from the words people use have direct implications for the actions we engage in. This relates to people responding to violence, oppression, and trauma in key ways. The words used to describe a violent act inform how people respond to both victims and perpetrators.
Here’s an example from a recent CBC News headline:
Most of us are familiar with the term “sex trafficker”, but have you ever stopped to think about what this term implies? Based on how the headline is written, the reader gets the sense that they are manipulative people who are “trafficking” (or “moving”) sex. Think about that for a second, then bear with me.
Within the article, they state, “in most cases the girls are deemed useless to the traffickers once they are in their mid-20s because men want them younger.” So what they’re really talking about is the organized, systematic rape of minors - children – a fact that is even more abundantly clear if you read more into the article. I say this because in Canada we have laws that deem the sexualized exploitation of children as “statutory rape”. Under Canadian law, children cannot have sex with adults (men, in the case of the article in question), and the more accurate and fitting term is “rape”.
So how does this example relate to the importance of the words we use to talk about things? When we use a term like “sex” in place of a more accurate term like “rape”, we describe a violent action as though it is a consensual, non-violent exchange. The headline above tells us that manipulative people are trafficking sex, when they’re really engaging in and facilitating violent acts against the will and wellbeing of vulnerable children.
Depending on which description of these actions we use, the social responses to both the victims and perpetrators are likely to be very different. We’re more likely to respond negatively to the victims if we see them as active participants in their abuse and exploitation (after all, sex is an inherently consensual activity), and are less likely to hold perpetrators accountable if we see them as simply trafficking or buying sex.
So why does this really matter? From my position as a therapist, it all comes down to providing conditions that are conducive to healing - while also holding the people who hurt them accountable. Research by trauma theorists and social justice activists alike indicates that when people are subjected to violence and other forms of trauma, the most important factor around healing is the types of social responses they receive. Not surprisingly, those who receive negative, judgmental, condemning responses are often more likely to be given a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). On the flip side, those who are met with compassion, understanding, support, safety, and other positive responses are likely to recover with far greater ease.
Operations of Language
Allan Wade and Linda Coates, with the Centre for Response-Based Practice have done some pivotal work bringing the importance of these issues to light. They helped lay out 4 problematic ways language can be used to misrepresent violent, malicious, or otherwise harmful actions by:
- Concealing violence
- Obscuring or mitigating perpetrator responsibility
- Concealing victim resistance
- Blaming or pathologizing victims
In the case of the CBC News headline and article above, the misrepresentation of systematic and organized child rape is done by concealing violence and obscuring/mitigating perpetrator responsiblily through the inaccurate language of "sex". It also conceals victim resistance and blames the victims through their implied participation.
Just as language can be used to misrepresent actions and inform unhelpful or problematic responses, it can also be used in really constructive ways. We can use words in clear and accurate ways to:
- Elucidate violence
- Clarify the responsibility that perpetrators have for their actions
- Elucidate and honour victim resistance
- Contest the blaming and pathologizing of victims
In practice, this involves fitting words to deeds. It's about telling it like it is in careful and sensitive ways, and avoiding euphemisms and other inaccuracies. As Allan Wade poignantly says,
"You don't hit someone with a 2x4 and call it carpentry. You don't hit someone with your car and call it body work..."
...so it doesn't make sense that acts of violence, like the organized exploitation of children, be called "sex".
How We Can All Help
Euphemisms abound in our culture - especially when we talk about violence. You can make a difference to victims and others responding to violence and other forms of trauma by choosing your words with purpose and intention.
This might look like asking clarifying questions when people are describing acts of violence. For example, if someone calls an assault (when one person does physical or verbal harm against another) a "fight" (when two people mutually agree to square off and go toe-to-toe), you could ask, "Do you mean he attacked her, or did something else happen?" This gives the speaker the opportunity to refine their statement and more accurately account for the roles of the parties involved - elucidating violence and holding the perpetrators responsible for their actions.
Asking questions to draw forth acts of resistance can help honour the things people do to survive adversity and maintain or reclaim their dignity. To this end, one might ask, "When that happened, what did you do?", followed by "How did you know to do that?".
Lastly, we can contest the blaming and pathologizing of victims by disrupting popular and problematic victim-blaming discourse. For example, if someone is reflecting on how their abusive ex-partner mistreated them by saying, "I guess I just choose abusive partners", we can respond by asking "What was your partner like when you first met? How did they treat you then?". I've never talked to anyone whose partner treated them badly or used violence from day one, and I'm willing to make a firm bet that they chose their partner at first because they treated them well. We can even follow these questions up with statements like, "Nothing you did was an invitation to abuse".
By being more intentional with the words we use, we can help foster a culture that is more fair, safe, and socially just.