Featured Image: “Megan Washington: Why I live in mortal dread of public speaking | TED talk” by Jean-Jacques Halans is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. Link to the license deed.
Trigger Warning: murder, r*pe, sexual assault, violence against women, graphic language
This article is an introduction for what I intend to be a series of monthly articles on violence against women, therefore, I have made no attempt to come to a neat conclusion and have instead tried to start a conversation. I would also like readers to note that when I refer to “women” in this article, this is a conversation that includes the experiences of both those who were and were not assigned female at birth.
On the 30th of September 2021, I spent the morning following the sentencing of murderer and rapist Wayne Couzens. Those who knew I was keeping updated on the trial’s development expressed what they assumed would be my relief: thank God he’s going away for life. Finally, they’re treating a woman’s violent murder in the way that they should. Rather than feeling eased by justice being served, I found myself growing increasingly uneasy and, eventually, outraged. While an English degree does not help you narrow down career paths, the one thing it is sure to do is make you acutely aware of the power of language. Where others saw the fulfilment of justice, I saw the misuse of power which led to Sarah Everard’s murder being reflected and perpetuated in each and every statement being given in response to the sentencing.
I would like to explore the (entirely unoriginal) idea that the media pushes an apologist narrative of violence against women that both reflects our day-to-day ways of speaking and enforces it in ways which, oftentimes, go undetected. Before I start, it is worth noting that by apologist language I mean all language which avoids placing the blame squarely on a male perpetrator. For the sake of concision, I’m not wholly concerning myself in this article with more obviously dangerous uses of language which allowed police colleagues to allegedly nickname a man “the rapist”, but instead will be talking more about phrases such as the one used by The Telegraph, which claimed that “the killing prompted national outrage.”
The alleged nicknaming of Couzens as “the rapist” only needs attending to insofar as it is the best example I can give as to why comedians should stop complaining that they can no longer make ableist, misogynistic, racist and derogatory jokes. Jokes are the carrier of some form of truth, and so locker room banter tends to be a symptom of and carrier for the normalisation of violence. This second example, however, requires a little more unpacking: “the killing prompted national outrage.” Well, I suppose that’s true. Except, when I think about it, I prompt myself to pick up loo roll on my way home. I’m not prompted into terror at reminders of my own mortality and dispensability as a woman. That feels like a hard push off a tall cliff, not a prompt.
We talk an awful lot about how the media — especially in the era of the internet echo chamber — polarises us with scaremongering and lies, which is absolutely relevant to this case. What we talk less about is the quiet violence of neutral, ostensibly unbiased language in these scenarios. To explore this idea, I’ll be taking the liberty of asserting that this is not a neutral issue. This isn’t maybe horrifying, or something which might be frightening and unsettling: this case is symbolic of the society in which we live, with Lord Justice Fulford having noted the media’s exploration of the case’s symbolism. This is inherently terrifying and enraging because it reminds us of the routine nature of violence against women. Yet this is an issue in which most media outlets (for the sake of maintaining their business relationships) and people (for the sake of maintaining their personal relationships) refuse to respect the fear women experience and do not engage with the issue in its truth and entirety. Whether we feel compassion for those choices or not, the bottom line is that when we accept this, we protect the perpetrators with our refusal to say it as it is. From this point, we begin a descent into the type of apologist attitudes that enable such violence to be committed on the scale that it is.
While the claim that something as small as the use of the word “prompt” can directly fuel violence against women may seem outlandish, we only have to look briefly into the field of linguistics to be met with a vast body of work which explores the numerous ways in which language shapes our realities. After all, how effectively can you harbour hatred if you have no language to express it and no dialogue which validates this anger? So, when the media use supposedly neutral language (such as “her murder”, which could be subliminally read as “she committed the murder herself”) to approach the kidnap, rape and murder of Sarah Everard, as well as the burning of her body, they are actually using violent language because the expectation is that our response to this type of violence should be placid. Calm. Polite. Don’t question the behaviours of those around you. Don’t question hierarchies of power and how they are maintained.
These thoughts are so pervasive in our culture that our leaders work from this same bedrock of apologist attitudes. Keir Starmer, for instance, asserted that we need a victims’ law. This, at first, had me nodding my head and thinking, finally. Until I thought: wait, why doesn’t he think we should try to prevent women from becoming victims in the first place? Why isn’t that the first thought? The suspicion I held which prompted these questions was proven to be grounded in reality only a week later when Boris Johnson stated that the criminalisation of misogyny as a hate crime would be “widening the scope” for the police; which could suggest that misogyny is too rampant in the UK for it to be criminalised. The suspicion was that some men at best don’t care and at worst actively avoid tackling the issue to maintain a system which works in their favour.
This is my roundabout way of saying that our language shapes our reality and our language is essentially apologist in its nature. We do not name the act because it’s impolite. We do not call out our friends because it’s awkward. We allow locker room banter which normalises misogyny and rape because we don’t want to be seen as a killjoy. We normalise this violence in our day-to-day lives. We naturally see no issue with a leader who wants to create a victims’ law (in fact, we’re so used to being passive in the face of this violence that this might actually sound like a pretty good idea), or a leader who acknowledges the systemic nature of misogyny and avoids fixing it, thereby maintaining said violent system. The neutrality and passivity of our language in these cases even blocks us from realising there is an issue, making it imperative that we become aware of the language we surround ourselves with and the language we use ourselves. In this spirit (as I am fundamentally an optimist), I have provided some suggestions on how to begin making these changes.
Curate your media feeds and be critical when deciding which media outlets to follow and which to not. Traditional media outlets tend to be users of apologist language, whether maliciously or not. So, decide how much of these traditional outlets you would like to engage with and remember to always be conscious of how they speak. It’s okay to engage with them, just not all the time and never unthinkingly. Curating your social media feed can be highly impactful, so here are some of my suggestions for Instagram:
- @Simplepolitics post news without any form of emotive language, while encouraging debate. Although neutral language can be dangerous, I trust this page more than other outlets which claim neutrality while harbouring huge biases behind the scenes. We do need to get our news from somewhere, after all.
- @Shityoushouldcareabout are admittedly largely a Harry Styles/Lorde fan page and are far more emotive in their speech but, from my perspective, simply look to uphold human rights and display a refreshing refusal to ‘calm down’.
- @Sophjbutler creates brilliant infographics about disability. Especially around being a disabled woman and the additional violence this forces her to protect herself from.
- @Yourdiagnonsense is a qualified Sex Therapist who creates brilliant content surrounding personal healing. We won’t make any significant changes if we don’t all become better people.
- @Cheerupluv dedicates the account to the conversations surrounding violence against women.
- @Jameelajamilofficial is an incredible advocate for human rights and often interrogates the ways in which the media use language to paint her out as hysterical in order to pacify her political voice.
Watch how you speak. Watch what you say. Watch what types of conversations you choose to engage with and how far you will go. Some people aren’t in a position to lose friends at the minute and that’s okay. Everyone, however, is in the position to not contribute to these ways of speaking. If you are able to, I would encourage you to curate your social circles as you would curate a media feed. Whose voice is detrimental and unhelpful? Equally, if you are in a position to, then demand better of those around you. If my white, cisgender, heterosexual boyfriend can engage in these topics with me, so can yours.