Inappropriate: the politics of language in reporting on serious crime and sexual violence

On Monday 26th October, Edinburgh Evening News published an article which called sexual assault ‘inappropriate’. Inappropriate behaviour is attending a wedding dressed in a Halloween costume, making loud animal noises during a trial, or writing ‘smells’ after another person’s name on a register. To equate sexual assault, or any serious crime, with ‘inappropriate behaviour’ is to reduce it and effectively whitewash the scale of the offence. Whilst a newspaper might report on a referee’s ‘outrageous’ decision at a football match, or describe a new film as ‘shocking’, sexual violence is simply ‘inappropriate’.  We cannot expect there to be any profound change in the way our society handles its problems of endemic sexual violence, lad culture and prejudice until we start talking about our problems in language equivocal to that which it is describing.

Just as phrases like ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘banter’ provide cultural carte blanche for men to behave with reckless disregard for others, the continued use of phraseology which minimises or downplays what it is describing fuels a culture which is more interested in covering up and euphemising its ills than addressing them in a sincere and adult manner. The use of this minimalizing speech plays into a narrative of normalisation, that because these words do not belong to an elevated register the issue they describe is itself something to be categorised as a norm. If chanting rape ‘jokes’ outside of accommodation buildings is ‘banter’ then we have adjusted the scale of normal behaviour so that basic human decency is an exception rather an expected minimum standard.

We see it across political institutions and throughout the media, take discussions of ‘collateral damage’ in warfare – because it is easier to use a euphemistic buzzword than address the fact that the use of indiscriminate violence by hegemonic states ultimately results in the needless and brutal deaths of thousands. We talk about the ‘Commonwealth’ rather than ‘occupied, oppressed and colonised states’, we talk about ‘sanctions’ rather than aggressive, ideologically fuelled cuts. There is a persistent and dangerous trend to sanitise discourse of difficult topics by repackaging them behind vapid jargon and phrases which are bleached of any emotional undercurrent, precisely because that is what oppressive groups want to do – to become emotionally detached.

The most simple and straightforward way to oppress a group is to deny its humanity, to establish a psychological distance between the oppressor and the oppressed. This is achieved by removing emotion from the situation, to strip the narrative of any compassion or humanism. This is defended by apologists as ‘objective’ speech, and in fact this is praised as dealing with things in a ‘professional manner’. There is nothing ‘objective’ or ‘neutral’ about covering up the realism of the situation, when you cover a stain with a rug the stain is still there and even less likely to be dealt with. In fact, far from neutrality such language perpetuates, sustains and institutionalises violence and discrimination. If you can convince a bystander not to identify the oppressed subject as a thinking, feeling human being then you can convince them not to act against the atrocities perpetrated by oppressive groups.

Publicly facing voices, whether journalists in print media or politicians in our parliaments, must lead the way in affirming that institutionalised violence is not to be accepted or normalised. This means addressing things the way they are, not skirting around the topic by dressing up atrocities as ‘shortcomings’. Language is a political weapon, and our conversations necessarily shape the way we construct serious and endemic social problems.
Image: Dave Crosby

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