Apr 9, 2009

Language matters

Ireland has gone down the tubes economically and the latest bludget is the topic du jour. Earlier today, I was avidly reading opinion pieces, blog posts and RSS feeds until I came across this piece

Our economy has been raped by a relatively small number of speculators. Sixty, seventy, perhaps a hundred greedy individuals have brought our country to the brink of bankruptcy, abetted by the craven, corrupt and unprincipled political party that now leads our government.

Now I agree with Bock on the greed and hypocrisy of the government but I was shocked out of my reading by his use of the word "raped". I was triggered. I am a two time rape survivor with PTSD. I used the usual methods to try and ride out the worst of it and then I got really fucking angry because what is happening to the Irish economy cannot be compared to rape. It is the misappropriation of my experience and the experience of other survivors.

I am living in Ireland with our shitty government. I have survived rape twice. They are not the same thing. Comparing playing politics with rape is abhorrent but it is possible that Bock did not know how offensive rape in this context is. When I'd calmed down I commented fairly politely I think.

Whatever about the banks, it’s horrible to use “rape” as a verb,

Our economy has been raped by a relatively small number of speculators. Sixty, seventy, perhaps a hundred greedy individuals have brought our country to the brink of bankruptcy, abetted by the craven, corrupt and unprincipled political party that now leads our government.

considering that one in four children and one in three women are raped in this country. Rape is not a word that should be used to describe a failing economy.

Then the author replied thusly.

It’s not being used to describe a failing economy. It’s being used to describe a conscious and brutal violation.

I tried to explain - less politely I admit.

That’s not the same as rape. You do not compare like with like. You take from what you imagine other people’s trauma and experiences to be and apply that to political decisions.

You may know that many rape survivors have PTSD and can be triggered by rape in this context. I can’t speak for every survivor of course but I did not expect to be triggered in a post about the economy and the banks.

Mostly I enjoy your blog but I can’t risk the post traumatic stress fallout that I experience because of that language.

I’m sure others will be kind enough to follow up with tasteful comments about PC police and over-sensitivity.

The reply was a classic non apology apology of the "I'm sorry if you were offended" genre.

I’m sorry if you find my choice of language painful but that’s how I choose to describe what has been done to us by these criminals. Nobody has ownership of a word in the language.

Bock is asserting his choice to use the word rape in this context and that nobody can claim ownership of a word. Well of course nobody can claim ownership of a word but words have meaning. He can choose to use the word but it is inaccurate and demonstrates a certain "don't give a fuck" attitude considering that a significant minority of his readers are probably rape survivors, at least statistically speaking.

Wikipedia says

Rape, also referred to as sexual assault, is an assault by a person involving sexual intercourse with or sexual penetration of another person without that person's consent.

And Websters says

An unlawful sexual activity and usually sexual intercourse carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against the will usually of a female or with a person who is beneath a certain age or incapable of valid consent

There are of course older definitions but in modern language rape is as defined above.

I am not trying to take ownership of the word rape but using it in such a context trivialises the crime and the impact on survivors. Since one in four children and one in three women is raped in Ireland, I find the response very insensitive especially since Bock wrote some great posts on child sexual abuse of the Catholic church and is therefore at least partially informed on the subject.

SarahMC on Shakesville's arguments on the subject which express my discomfort with such contextual use.

Why do people use the word "rape" to describe annoyances or hardships that don't come close to being like rape? I bet much of the appeal, for such people, is the shock value of using a word for sexual assault to describe something that has nothing to do with sexual assault.

Implying that failing a test or getting killed in a video game is as traumatizing and horrible as rape trivializes rape. I have never been raped, but I have a strong reaction to the misuse of the word (usually by men). Maybe it's because rape is a crime committed primarily against women. "Killed" and "murdered" don't rub me the wrong way; I think it's because both men and women are killed on a regular basis, by people of both sexes. Our culture does not apologize for murder, deny that it occurs, and immediately blame the victims for what happened to them. And murder goes unpunished far less often than rape.

Maybe it's because of the unapologetic, brash tone people tend to take when they misuse it. When people throw the word around casually, I feel as though they are dismissing rape and failing to put themselves in others' shoes. As the comic illustrates, people who'd use the word "rape" in that context have a massive blind spot when it comes to a threat women live with their whole lives.

People can be so clueless; but they also show a real disregard for others' feelings and comfort (that, or they delight in it). Does anyone have good strategies for confronting people who use triggering or otherwise offensive language in their presence?

And in the comments Melissa nails it

When an acquaintance (associate, coworker, friend-of-a-friend, etc.) casually uses rape in my presence, to mean something Totally Not Like Rape, I usually say, "It seems to me you don't really know what rape is like. I've been raped. Would you like me to explain to you the difference between being raped and ____________?"

So yeah language matters. Meaning matters. Consideration of others matters too.

As for the non apology apology, it's more insulting to faux apologise than to tell a person to just fuck off because you just don't care.

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