In continuation of my series on the Four Operations of Language, this post focuses on the second operation: Obscuring and Mitigating Perpetrator Responsibility.
Have you ever heard someone describe an event that involved at least two people, and it was entirely unclear who did what? That’s essentially how this operation of language functions. Obscuring/mitigating perpetrator responsibility is all about making the roles of perpetrator and victim ambiguous.
One common way of doing this is through the use of mutualizing terms. Mutualizing language makes it seem as though unilateral actions (think one-directional) are actually bi-lateral (or two-way; give and take). Some common examples of this include calling an assault a “fight”; calling a rape “sex”; or calling the public humiliation of a person an “argument”. Another example, which is commonly found in anti-violence literature, is “abusive relationship”. This is a term that many of us may not think twice about, but actually positions victims as participants in their abuse because of the bi-lateral implications of the term “relationship”. Linda Coates, Allan Wade, and others have made the distinction that we wouldn’t call a relationship where one person is overtly loving and kind toward the other, while their partner is totally disinterested and un-loving a “loving relationship”. In that case, it would seem absurd, given that the love is clearly not bilateral. So why do we call relationships where one partner abuses the other an “abusive relationship”? All these terms make it sound as though all parties are active participants, when in fact they are not. It’s the difference between consenting and being subjected to something.
Another typical way of obscuring perpetrator responsibility is through omitting the perpetrator from the conversation. Agentless statements like, “The assault happened at 11:27 pm” make it sound as though the act of violence was just something that happened, rather than something done by one person against another. These kinds of descriptions shift our focus away from the perpetrator's actions onto the victim alone. We may not realize it, but these kinds of descriptions have an extensive history of use within our culture. Jackson Katz, a gender-based violence educator, talks about how the term “violence against women” omits the perpetrator from the discourse. We know who the victims are: women. But who is doing the violence? Statistics largely point toward men – the same gender group responsible for most of the violence against men in our society. To remedy this problem, Katz suggests using the term “Men’s violence against women” – a term that includes a group of social agents. Of course, the example above, “abusive relationship”, could also fit within this category, as it too fails to provide an account of a social agent responsible for the abuse.
“Under the Influence”: Possession Metaphors
We can also obscure and mitigate perpetrator responsibility through descriptions that attribute a perpetrator’s actions to being influenced by some force outside of their volition. We do this when we describe people as “losing control”, “blacking out”, or “losing their temper”. Statements like these assume that when someone is in control, they do not harm others, and only when control is lost do they act in problematic ways. In a paper from 2004, Linda Coates and Allan Wade outline a number of other examples of ways people (judges in particular) commit this operation of language:
- “Alcohol was undoubtedly involved.”
- “The offender was overwhelmed by sexual urges.”
- “Because of his/her difficult childhood…”
- “At the time of the offence, the accused had lost his mother.”
- “This incident is completely out of character.”
- “He was angry.”
- “He/She could not stop him/herself.”
Examples like these make people out to be responsible only for their “good” behaviour, absolving them of responsibility when they act in ways that harm others.
How We Can Help
To avoid obscuring and mitigating perpetrator responsibility, we can start by intentionally using unilateral language when appropriate. This means when someone uses a mutualizing term to describe an act of violence, we can ask questions to clarify just what they mean: “So she just came up from behind the other woman and hit her!? I guess that makes it more of an assault than a fight, wouldn’t you say?” We can be clear about who is doing what, rather than leaving the perpetrator out of the conversation. Statements like, “He was assaulted in the alley by three men” more clearly delineate who did what, as opposed to an alternative like, “He was the victim of street violence” – which does not include a perpetrator. When referring to violence done by one partner to another, we can say, “He was abusive to her”, rather than, “She was in an abusive relationship”. We can also leave possession metaphors out of the conversation, keeping it focused around who did what, and to whom.
Why it Matters
As I’ve stated previously, how we talk about things directly influences our understandings of events, which shapes how we respond. When we use language that makes the roles of victim and perpetrator unclear, we’re more likely to responding in unhelpful (or even harmful) ways to victims, while failing to hold perpetrators responsible for their actions. This attention to language holds major implications for creating safer communities and conditions that are more conducive to justice and healing.