There is a fascinating and pertinent article in The Journal of April 25th written by Mia Doering. It’s all about language and, specifically, the language that surrounds and informs the reality of sexual violence against women and girls. . The article is both pertinent and fascinating because it is, indeed, language that not only informs us all about the realities in our world but also helps (to a large degree) to shape that world.
The article is also timely; the news yesterday alerted us about an offender being sentenced to a three year community order for a sexual assault and burglary. There has been criticism of the judge for giving what, on the face of things, seems to be a sentence that is not easy to justify. Sexual assault is a serious, intrusive and life changing crime for those who are subjected to it. The judge gave credit for an early guilty plea, something that is established precedent and procedure; but we are still left with the feeling that somehow the point has been missed – sexual assault is a serious offence.
So, what about the language? Mia Doering makes the point that language, and how we use it, is vitally important. Indeed, the nature of language is something that has fascinated some of the world’s greatest thinkers. Wittgenstein wrote of the “Language game, consisting of language and the actions into which it is woven”. Language matters. The speaking of language is part of an activity, or a form of life.
Language is not only informative, telling us what we may need to know, entertaining and enlivening our days and evenings; it is deeply formative as well. The way we use language, the words we string together and the sentences we construct help shape and determine what actually happens in our lives: “I love you” not only lets someone know we care but can fundamentally alter the course of two, or many lives.
Mia makes a telling point: too often we hear language used in a way that is far from helpful. To say that “Jane was raped by Paul” makes her, the victim, the subject of the sentence. In some way she becomes the focus; but for the wrong reasons! Yes, victims and survivors are the most important consideration. But it is actually Paul, the perpetrator, the person who is responsible for the crime, who should be the focus here. “Paul raped Jane” leaves no hiding place; we know what is being said and we know its meaning and import.
So the article by Mia is an important one. The fact that so often the subject of the sentence is the victim or survivor does, indeed, shift the emphasis away from the perpetrator and, many would argue, contribute to the partial shifting of blame as well. If we aren’t to see violence against women and girls as simply a concept, something that just happens to be “out there” and if we are to see it for what it really is, acts of particularly nasty aggression carried out by an individual on other individuals, then we need to get our language and how we use it right. Only then will we be content that our language is not only letting us know what is happening but is also helping shape a better society.
See Mia Doering’s full article here- http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/violence-against-women-language-2068085-Apr2015/