Not long ago I wrote a blog post on the importance of language when it comes to the social responses we give trauma survivors and victims of violence. In that post, I mentioned four operations of language that Allan Wade and Linda Coates identified as:
- Concealing violence
- Obscuring and mitigating perpetrator responsibility
- Concealing victim resistance
- Blaming and pathologizing victims
I have a keen personal and professional interest in these operations of language, and have been doing ongoing research related to them.
Because a single blog post leaves little room to go into much detail around these operations, I’ve decided to present a four-part series taking a closer look at each of them – to really illustrate what each one means. In this post I will focus on different ways language can be used to conceal or elucidate violence.
What is Violence?
The definition of violence that I use is simple:
“Any unilateral (which means one-directional) action by one person or party against the will and wellbeing of another”.
There is a clear perpetrator or offender, and a victim (or victims). I'll also note that these terms "perpetrator" and "victim" are contextual terms, not identity conclusions. Someone who is the victim of another's violence could just as well be a perpetrator in another circumstance. These aren't value judgments but descriptive terms.
This is a topic that deserves a lot more attention than I have space for here, but I will say that in my experience, the responsibility for most acts of violence is often clear within the context of the incident itself, but becomes muddied by descriptions that serve to conceal it.
English speaking, Western cultures have an extensive history of using euphemisms to dress up or conceal violent and oppressive actions. Perpetrators use this operation to hide their actions from a public with the power to intervene. In broader cultural contexts, we see this operation of language used by military forces with terms like “friendly fire”. In Canada, we use this operation to conceal our history of colonialism and oppression of First Nations people through terms like “residential schools”. As folks like Allan Wade and others from the Centre for Response-Based Practice have pointed out, the term “residential school” is incredibly misleading because the children who were sent there were taken against their own will, and against the will of their families. They were also subjected to genocidal abuse and actions intended to “take the Indian out of the child”, rather than being given any kind of higher education. It is therefore inaccurate to call them “residences” or “schools” – and in fact, a more fitting term may be “prison camps”.
Common Examples of Concealing Violence
“Child sex tourism”
This is a term that we likely hear or read about in the news from time to time, which according to an organization called The Code (a tourist industry driven initiative to protect children from so-called “sex tourism”), “refers to acts perpetrated by those who are traveling or using their status as tourists in order to sexually exploit children.” This explanation of what the term refers to is clear in its position against so-called “child sex tourism”, identifying that it’s a bad thing – something worth opposing. That’s good. However, the term itself conceals violence by insinuating that something is happening that is not, and cannot happen: “sex” with children.
Sex requires consent. Any action carried out by one person to/against another that is not consensual is not sex. We have laws in North America that protect children from being exploited by adults, which deem such offences as “statutory rape”. In the case of “child sex tourism”, a more accurate term would be “organized international child rape”. I don’t know about you, but I certainly have a stronger emotional and physical response to the latter term than its more euphemistic cousin. From my perspective, this stronger response bodes better for doing justice to the victims of such acts of violence.
I came across this term in my research on how anti-violence agencies represent violence in their online public material. To me, it brings to mind images of family members at odds with one another, perhaps with their backs turned and arms folded, struggling to resolve some issue. There’s tension in the picture, but definitely not violence. If I didn't know better, I wouldn't think it would be a situation worth calling the police about.
The contexts in which this and similar terms are used are almost exclusively assaults by one family member (often a man) against another (often a woman, though sometimes children). Those who use this statement are not only concealing violence, but also obscuring and mitigating the responsibility of the perpetrator (which I’ll go into more detail on in a later post). If we know that this term is a euphemism for violence, by calling it “domestic”, it sounds like it’s a house or apartment doing the violence – not a person. On top of that, the word “conflict” implies a mutual or bi-lateral exchange between people – not a unilateral act of violence. A more accurate and simple description could be “A man assaulted his female partner”, which, for good reason, doesn’t sit so well with me.
This is a tricky one, and one that may be more likely to elicit some controversy. I believe that the term “trauma” is a fitting one when describing overwhelming experiences that are intensely adverse and distressing. These can include car accidents, natural disasters, the sudden loss of a loved one, as well as acts of violence and abuse. However, through working in my field, I have found that it’s common for the language of trauma to overshadow or erase the experiences of violence that a person is responding to. This places the focus on the mind of the victim, and away from the interactional events as they happened. The slope gets slippery as our attention shifts away from the perpetrator and what they did, toward how the victim is now “traumatized”. From my perspective, this does not bode well for restoring justice for the victim, which is often important for healing.
My preference here is to acknowledge that an attack or abuse is understandably traumatic, but to be sure to use descriptive, interactional language when talking about what it is the person is responding to. This helps us avoid over focusing on the mind of the victim, and allows us to be more helpful in terms of honouring their resistance to the violence or abuse – something that only focusing on the “effects of trauma” does not make room for.
If we can use language to conceal violence, we can also use it to make it clear. We can use language that describes things as they actually happened, accurately fitting words to deeds. When talking about violence, it’s important that we use words that fit for talking about violence. Violence is not sex. I propose that we use the word “sexualized” in place of “sexual” when talking about acts of violence, as it denotes unilateral acts, whereas “sexual” is mutualizing. I suggest that we avoid using words that make it unclear what really happened. Words like “conflict” or “fight” make things really unclear, whereas “assault” and other more descriptive terms delineate who did what and to whom. When we’re talking about trauma, it’s ok to call it trauma, but important not to lose sight of what actually happened by over-focusing on the mind of the victim. If we can do a better job of these things as a society, we can not only hold perpetrators more accountable and help support victims heal, but actually prevent the likelihood of future violence.