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Passive vs Active: The Language of Victimization, Victim-Blaming, and the Intent vs Effect of Communication

30 Oct

Recently some friends on Facebook posted this spiel about the use of passive voice in talking about gendered crime and statistics. Read it for yourself below.

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I immediately felt uncomfortable with the whole thing. I have several reasons why. Keep reading if you’re interested in why.

Passive Voice and Crime Reporting

The quote above by Katz is focused on gender related victimization; however, we use the passive voice when speaking about crime in general. Reporters will often write or say “Last night a man was mugged while walking to his car” or “Many people’s identities were stolen last week” or “A teenager was hit by a car yesterday”. So right off the bat, I question the validity of linking the use of passive voice with gendered crime exclusively. “Was murdered”, “was attacked”, “was car-jacked”, “was mugged”, “was abused” are all terms used in the reporting of crime and do not specify gender. I argue that rape isn’t even a gendered crime, so I cannot help but feel that Katz is limiting the use of passive voice to gendered crime is a limit of the mind and excludes victims.

Counting Crimes

Another issue with this argument is that the number of victims and the number of perpetrators is disproportionate. We can easily count those who have been victimized. We cannot count perpetrators until they have been convicted. The teen pregnancy is the best example of where in reporting the number of instances, the pregnancy count is more accurate than the number of males involved in those pregnancies. First of all, the chances of a male getting more than one teenager pregnant is pretty good (which is horrible, I agree), but we have no way of tracking that. We can, however, track the teen pregnancy amounts. If the guy got pregnant or had some sort of messed up score card emblazoned on his forehead, we would count that instead.

Focus on the Pain = Focus on the Victim

I don’t believe we should take the narrative of the event away from the victim. In doing so, we remove the focus on the pain they have suffered. We can argue that active voice about a perpetrator can express outrage; however, outrage should not be the focus. Empathy for the victim should be the focus. We do this by presenting the narrative of the event from the perspective of the victim. We keep the victim as the subject of the sentences. When the media reports on victimed crimes, they are required (generally) to do so impassively. They cannot present outrage in their tone, especially with written reports vs verbal ones. As such the narrative with the perpetrator as the subject of the sentences can create a dissonance because we are used to narratives wherein we are meant to believe and empathize with the subject of the sentences. We all have years and years of training to think this way. Imagine the story of Brock Turner and his victim as presented by him vs the letter she wrote to the judge. Or compare the dispassionate reporting of the events from his perspective vs from hers. If the press gave his story first, most people would be predisposed to disbelieve her story coming second. The act is not made illegal based on the inner thinking of the perpetrator but for the damage it causes the victim. While I see the dangers of passive voice in fictional narratives, I see it as a necessity in the reporting of victimed crimes to focus the empathy on the victim.

Passive Voice and Victimization

Katz presents the idea that by focusing on the victim, we are also holding them responsible for their victimization. However, besides leaving the victim as the subject of the sentences and thus the focus of empathy, passive voice perfectly matches the reality for victims. Being a victim is a passive act. Victims did not do anything to bring on their victimization. Of course, passive voice should be used when describing victims. They were not active in their victimization. It is the very opposite of victim-blaming to use passive voice. Victims themselves are allowed to use whichever form they please (I was mugged vs Someone mugged me) because as the authors of the sentences about the event, they are already forcing the audience to acknowledge them. But if a reporter were to use active voice with the victim as the subject, that sentence would have to be very carefully structured to avoid victim-blaming. I foresee sentences like that being unwieldy and unclear.

Violence Against Object Phrasing

While I get what Katz is saying that men aren’t involved in the structure of the phrase “violence against women”, the argument ignores the fact that most organizations that fight against violence structure it that way: Violence Against Children and Violence Against Animals are both used in organizations lending assistance to those groups. Most Violence Against groups are victim focused first. They try to help the victim out of bad situation. Secondary to rescue actions are education actions. It makes sense then that the title should focus on the victim of the act, not the perpetrator as the organizations usually have no direct contact with those people and legislative lobbying is not as big a focus.

If a person searches for “violence against” in an online search engine, most results will be about women. Half of those will be organizations with Domestic Violence in the organization name. I believe that Domestic Violence is a better term. While many believe that the term Domestic is problematic because it can imply Privacy, I relate it to Domecile, which implies co-habitation. Domestic Violence is specific to two people in a relationship living together, one of whom has become abusive of the other. This is non-gendered, which to me is highly important. So often, people say that domestic abuse is not about who is physically stronger, but who is more powerful and controlling. This is not a gendered issue, also because people of non-cis-sexualities are capable of domestic abuse. Believing that a man simply by being physically stronger can never be a victim of domestic abuse feeds into toxic masculinity and just compounds the gender divide. That is why Domestic Violence is a more inclusive way of describing the problems. Women can and do abuse men, emotionally, verbally, and yes, physically. However, abuse can still happen if the two aren’t living together, so even that term is not enough. Inter-relationship Violence is most encompassing of the terms I can come up with because while we have a word for a guardian abusing a child (Child Abuse), we don’t have a word for child to child abuse or a child abusing a parent, both of which do happen. Our terms unfortunately are based on archaic ideas of relationships and family, namely the nuclear family. The nuclear family was rarely a reality and even rarer now than it was when it was considered the norm. So I agree with Katz in saying that the term Violence Against Women is problematic, but not for the same reasons.

Intent > Communication > Effect

When I pointed out to someone that I felt that Katz argument was flawed, I mentioned intent and was parried with the statement that intent did not matter. I’ve been reading up a lot lately on how to speak to someone who has distorted thinking in order to properly communicate intent to the right effect, all of it written by psychologists and psychiatrists. So I’m going to break down what I’ve learned.

  • Intent: Person A’s desired effect fed or countered by bias, emotion, thoughts, memories, and situation – example: to report on a recent crime in an objective manner to make Persons B knowledgeable of the crime
  • Communication: the words by which Person A will attempt to match effect to intent
  • Effect: Persons Bs’ mental and emotional reaction to the communication, influenced by their pre-communication memories, thoughts, and feelings

Of course, in a perfect world, intent and effect would always match. We don’t live in a perfect world, so they don’t always match, because Person A’s conscious intent can be greatly effected by their unconscious intent. Person B can also be suffering from distorted thinking. Distorted thinking is a symptom of depression, anxiety, PTSD, several personality disorders, and other mental health issues. Disorted thinking can warp communication to mean something it doesn’t mean, such as seeing hostility where there is none. When the issue is Person A’s bias or unconscious intent, they can have this gently pointed out them and re-evaluate how they communicate their conscious intent. When the issue is Person B’s distorted thinking, they should be made aware of this, probably with a professional, and use cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help them change their reactions to the communication.

Triggers

CBT is used to help people have more rational reactions to triggers. Now, I’ve been hearing a lot about trigger-warnings and safe spaces. About people trying to prevent people who suffer from bad reactions to certain things from experiencing those certain things. Especially victims. Now, victims of crimes are not the only people who experience triggering events, as explained above. Those with anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and depression who may never have been victims of crimes experience triggering events as well.

Every psychologist I’ve spoken to and every book on the subject I’ve read by psychologists and psychiatrists has stated that it is best if patients limit their contact with triggering events, but that they also learn to change their reactions to those events through therapy methods such as CBT or DBT. The goal is not to walk around in a bubble, silencing everyone around them to prevent them from ever feeling pain. Friends and family are meant to help by not exasperating the bad feelings by triggering them; however, strangers are not meant to change their behavior. Therapy does not expect this. In fact, it explains that a patient can expect to be triggered through non-personal interactions on occasion. Just because the patient is triggered, does not mean that their reaction is appropriate or requires change from others. Again, therapy expects the patient to eventually change their reaction. The basis is always that a person can control only themself, not others. We can only control ourselves and our own reactions. This is actually very helpful to hear when dealing with other people who have distorted thinking.

Does this mean that people get to be insensitive? No, of course not. There needs to be a balance between communication that matches the intent, which shouldn’t be to harm, and the reaction, which should be free of distorted thinking. Both sides require empathy; it is the only way for understanding to happen.

But there is one group of people who get to be purposefully insensitive: comedians. Why? This again takes understanding. First of all, it is a long standing tradition, as in centuries old, for comedians to be able to say what no one else is daring enough to say and to use that daring to satirize issues in our society. This includes sensitive, triggering subjects. The understanding from people listening to or reading comedians that is required is that comedians will do this and that is their job to do so. Acting surprised and hurt that a comedian said something shocking about a sensitive subject is frankly silly. Comedy is meant to make us laugh about sensitive subjects and relieve some of our tension and pain on those subjects. It’s also supposed to make us think about them differently. That’s a good thing. I’ve had bad reactions to jokes before. Yes, some of them were in poor taste and/or not funny in my opinion, but that just means I don’t have listen to that joke again. I can say I don’t think it’s funny or that it’s not for me. I can turn off the special and decide not to watch that comedian again. Again, I can only control my reaction and actions. I let my feet doing the talking when it comes to my opinion on comedy. I don’t expect the comedian to change. But if enough people agree with me and decide not to watch that comedian, well, that comedian will get the message that they aren’t all that funny. But then again, maybe other people think they are funny and that’s fine. Even if they are offensive. It’s called freedom of speech.

Conclusion

Language is a tricky thing. It is also one of my favorite subjects to think about and discuss. It’s a subject that requires a lot of critical thinking. I don’t believe I have all the answers because language is constantly changing because society is constantly changing. Some things are always the same. Comedians make jokes. People get hurt. People say hurtful things, both on purpose and by accident. People learn to get past being hurt. Or at least, they should try to. I react to things in overly negative ways too. I say things that get distorted. I say things that are hurtful. We all do these things. This is life. It requires us all to think about what we say, what we mean, and what others mean. There are no easy answers, and we can’t just look at one way and expect everybody agree with us. I don’t expect all of you reading this to agree with everything I’ve written here or even any of it. That’s discourse. If you still agree with Katz’ point of view after reading this, that’s fine. I’m not upset. It’s not necessary that you agree with me. You’re your own person, so you’re allowed to have your own point of view. That’s also life.

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