Monday, February 23, 2015

The Language That Kills

Rosie Batty and Natasha Stott-Despoya were on Q&A tonight discussing Domestic Violence. They were outnumbered, ironically, by the male panelists.
Anyone reading the crime reports in newspapers around Australia today would find sordid tales of people throwing themselves at other people’s fists and sober drivers inconveniently getting in the way of drunk or speeding drivers. We all read about people who work hard to buy houses to fill with possessions only to selflessly let other people destroy or steal them.

There is the inevitable roundup of people staying in relationships only to be injured or killed by their partners and, of course, those terrible reports of children who seduce adults.

Apologies, my mistake! I seem to be getting the relative culpability of perpetrators and victims mixed up. I am especially confused because we seem to have two ways of reporting crime and violence.

When we report crime, we have crimes in which the criminal is named, and crimes in which the victim is named. When we discuss violence, sometimes the language we use indicates the person who acts violently is responsible, sometimes the victim of violence is responsible.

In order to prevent the spread of violence, society has to discuss the criminality of alcohol-fuelled violence, drink driving, speeding, arson, burglary, domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse. The language we use to describe the first crimes define a criminal act by the perpetrator, to be examined and tried by the law.

The last three crimes of violence, however, are named and discussed as if a result of disembodied violence that manifests only in the victim; the domestic victim, the sexual victim, the child victim. This is a disingenuous use of language because these crimes of violence are enacted entirely by living, breathing humans. This pervasive language shields the perpetrators from the full gaze of society and the law, and it turns an intolerable gaze on the victims.

If in everyday language we can talk of drunk drivers, burglars and arsonists without restriction, but not abusers without excuses, is there any wonder there is an epidemic of criminal violence in domestic and intimate relationships? As a society we must change the words we use to reflect crimes of violence back on the perpetrator.

Take, for example, a much quoted statistic: ‘1 in 4 women worldwide experience some form of domestic violence or sexual assault.’ This makes the violence visible only in connection to the victim, not to the abuser. The statistic we should be reporting is the numbers of perpetrators, turning the focus of guilt on those who act violently. Thus we would be quoting a statistic that would read closer to ‘1 in 4 people worldwide abuse their (female) partner or children.’

In Australia and around the world women, children and men with full and loving lives are forced to live with violent and criminal abusers. We know this because of the women, children and men who are injured and die at the hands of abusers, 14 women killed by their intimate partners in Australia in the first eight weeks 2015 alone. But it is not the victims who are obliged to make the abuser visible to society by injury or death, it is up to us to do something to change our language and thus our understanding of who is guilty of violence.

As family, friends, workmates and neighbours to people who abuse their partners and children, it is our job to consciously register instances of public and private violence, speak about violence in language that focuses on the abuser and refuse to be silent when violence is trivialised in social discussion. Criminal violence enacted on intimates by people we know is our responsibility to name and stop, and our first step is to examine our language and who it places in the position of culpability. After all, every other violent crime is blamed entirely on the perpetrator, why not domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse?
Real People and Sex
Separation of sexual provider and customer by perceived morality is problematic because the negative morality is projected onto the provider by the population that supplies the customers. This results in my two least favourite prevalent social concepts; that sex workers aren’t real people from the real world with partners/families/friends who love them and that the people who pay for sex with sex workers aren’t real people from the real world with partners/families/friends that love them.
The C Word
Why is it the ultimate insult for anyone, male or female? Because it speaks about the least desirable, the most unwanted, the ultimate source of fear: the vagina. It’s not enough to liken someone to a woman as a whole; the reference must be to what is biologically perhaps the most identifying aspect of being a woman, her very essence summed up in a body part. To a large proportion of men, the vagina is at best a mystery, at worst, a source of disgust. To have linked the most vulgar word in the English language to the most essential part of femininity is no mean feat.

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