As I was reading about the grand jury report on the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, one particular quote struck me. It refers to how the grand jury described the Church’s methods for covering up abuse.
‘First, make sure to use euphemisms rather than real words to describe the sexual assaults in diocese documents. Never say “rape”; say “inappropriate contact” or “boundary issues’.
The Catholic Church have always known that language is important. By minimising the shock value of their words, they are trying to change the public perception of what they are responsible for. Inappropriate contact doesn’t sound like such a big deal. Rape does. If you call them boundary issues, it doesn’t seem so bad. It could almost be forgivable. Call it what it is, and you can clearly see the horror of what these survivors endured.
Systemic failure by the state
It is not the only time in the last couple of weeks that I have noticed subtle manipulations in language to alter the perception of the public around a certain issue. One example was the recent case of a mother who, along with her children, was forced to sleep in a Garda station due to lack of suitable emergency accommodation. So many of the headlines, instead of saying ‘mother and her children’, referred to this woman as ‘homeless mum of seven’. What’s the difference? This subtle twist of language is designed to make us react, instead of with great empathy, with the notion that the woman is irresponsible for having seven kids when she can’t even keep a roof over their heads. And it worked. I was sickened by the response to this woman’s story. She has kids – two or 11, it doesn’t matter and it is none of our business why or how. The system has failed her, the state has failed her. But this small, barely noticeable use of language has left her open to harsh criticism and a complete lack of respect and empathy by a disturbingly large amount of people. It’s almost like they are trying to distract us from something…
…Oh yes, the housing crisis. For a while, the government wouldn’t even refer to it as a crisis. That was another attempt to detract from the seriousness of the problem. ‘A matter for
concern’ is a lot less ominous than a full blown crisis.
I have been spending some time recently with people in direct provision. I find that I refer to them as ‘residents of the direct provision centre’ but this doesn’t ring true to me. They reside there, but not by choice. They don’t really live there, because it is no life. They are more like prisoners, stuck in that broken system, but that isn’t quite the right term for it either. A prisoner in this country is someone who has been jailed for committing a crime – and that certainly isn’t the case here. Choosing safety over home isn’t a crime. Is there even a word to describe it? I can’t seem to find the right one.
Words are useful. Words are the building blocks of our society. We learn from words, we speak to be heard and feel less alone. And yet, language can be pernicious. It can distort and undermine. It is simultaneously one of the best and worst things about the human race. Words are tools and they are weapons.
Language is important.