Thoughts on genre, language, grammar, and other
rhetorical and linguistic norms
rhetorical and linguistic norms
Misconduct, Harassment, Abuse, Assault, Rape
In today’s newspapers landing in my driveway:
U.S. Senator Al Franken is accused of “sexual misconduct” and charged with “grabbing” or “groping” women
U.S. Representative John Conyers is accused of “sexual harassment” for “harassing” employees.
In the news of recent weeks, Harvey Weinstein was accused of “sexual harassment,” “sexual abuse,” and “sexual assault,” and Kevin Spacey, too, was accused of “sexual assault.”
In the past, Donald Trump described how he would “start kissing” women and “grab ‘em” by their [genitals].
I discussed in a previous post the significance of whether Trump’s actions were called “locker room talk” or “sexual assault.” Now the different wordings have become much more nuanced.
We all might ask, “WHAT are these men DOING????!!”
But we who notice words might also ask, “What are these men doing, and why are they called so many different things?”
I’m sure that lawyers would answer that question in technical ways that might clarify some distinctions. I haven’t found any reporting that Franken “harassed” women, for example, and I imagine that’s because his groping/grabbing was not against women who worked for him.
Conyers’ primary accuser, on the other hand, was a staffer, and an ethics investigation has begun into his potential “sexual harassment.” Weinstein, too, is accused of “harassment” and much more against actresses and others over whom he had the power of a job.
So “harassment” might be particular to the workplace.
I’m sure some of the other terms have important legal definitions—what constitutes “assault” versus “rape,” for example—but in the popular press and social media, the different terms also carry more subtle connotations, nuances of meaning with emotional attachments.
“Misconduct” to me sounds like some specific actions rather than a pattern. In the university, when someone is charged with “academic misconduct” or an athlete or coach with “misconduct,” they’re being charged with particular actions that were inappropriate, unethical, or illegal. They did something bad, at least once.
“Harassment” is a pattern, a continued practice of doing bad things. “Misconduct” can be a mistake. “Harassment” signals a character flaw.
The Oxford English Dictionary—oh that trusted OED, source of word history and definitions—defines “misconduct” as “Improper or unacceptable conduct or behaviour. Frequently, esp. in Law (euphem.): adultery or other illicit sexual activity.”
“Harassment” the OED defines as “The action of harassing, or the fact of being harassed; vexation, worry.”
Hmm. Maybe that doesn’t support the nuances I was seeing. Still, to me, “harassment” has a habitual nature to it, something that’s repeated.
Then there’s whether the harasser is abusing or assaulting. I couldn’t find any clear difference in when an action was referred to as “sexual abuse” or “sexual assault.” The latter seems much more legally actionable to me, but similar actions were sometimes referred to by both terms. Is what Trump says he did “assault”? I’d say so. Is it “abuse”? Does that require more of a pattern of habitual action, again?
The OED doesn’t help much since it defines “abuse” with “sexual assault” as one example of its meaning.
All this talk about words, words, words may seem to miss the point. Lots of men have been doing horrible things to lots of women. That’s the point.
But remember that words matter. All the violations matter, and they’re all horrendous. But how much of that horrendousness do we acknowledge with the words used to describe them?
How much more habitual does it seem if a man “harasses” a woman rather than commits “misconduct”?
How much more violent does it seem if a man “assaults” a woman rather than “abuses” her? “Assault” gets a man thrown in jail. Well, some men anyway. “Abuse” is awful, maybe something more ongoing?
How much more of a personal violation is it if a man “gropes” a woman instead of “grabs” her?
But how many different words exist to describe what's been happening? In the end, all these stories, whatever the words, communicate the same thing--in our society, whether once or habitually, in the workplace or on a bus or plane, men have been using their power over women in despicable ways. Women have remained silent publicly, for the most part, until now.
Now, the message is clear, whatever the words. Grope, grab, abuse, assault, harass, rape.
Just stop it.
It’s not just apologies that need rules for doing them well.
Last year at this time, I wrote about the fact that Thanksgiving is the only holiday with a verb in it, that tells us how to celebrate it. Give thanks.
W. J. Cameron: "Thanksgiving, after all, is a word of action."
I shared some of the ideas others had suggested for giving thanks at the holiday celebration—taking turns around the table, writing down one thing you’re thankful for and sharing them, and other thankful demonstrations that would fit perfectly in a Hallmark Christmas movie (I’m a sucker for a good heart-warming Hallmark Christmas movie).
I also wrote about how thankful I was for the help I’d been getting as I recovered from shoulder surgery (a huge thanks again to all those great people, who would have fit well into that Hallmark movie where the townspeople step up to help the independent woman who insists on going it alone! Update: my athletic injury is completely healed after six months of physical therapy—thanks Andrea, my super physical therapist!)
Less fitting in the Hallmark movie (unless said by the evil corporate drone or the self-involved boyfriend who’s about to be dumped) is the “humble brag” that’s a thank you for seeing how awesome I am!
“Thank you to all the students who wrote such nice things on their evaluations. You help keep me going.”
“Thanks to all the colleagues who wrote support letters for my big award. I wouldn’t have received it without you”
“Big shout out to Susie, our wonderful travel agent, who planned such an incredible two week trip through Italy”
Before I get sucked into all the generic markers of a Hallmark Christmas movie (surely a topic for another post soon), I want to focus on the simpler version of thanks that I wrote about—the every day “thanks” we say to people we encounter all day long, maybe sometimes without really meaning it.
Thanks again to Deepak Singh for his article in the Atlantic about the differences between saying thanks in the US and in India.
I have been living in the United States for more than a decade, and I now say thank you about 50 times a day. Most of the time, I do it without thinking. I say thank you to the bus driver who takes me from point A to point B along with 20 other people. He usually can’t even hear me. I say thank you to the cashier at the coffee shop. I say thank you to the stranger who holds the door open for me at a restaurant. I say thank you to my wife and my 5-year-old daughter several times a day for various things: turning the volume of the television down or up, flicking the light switch on or off, asking me if I want to eat something or do something with them.” --Deepak Singh
Deepak Singh contrasted our everyday thanks to the deep meaningfulness of saying thank you in India, something you do only with sincerity and a desire to do something in return.
I’ve been trying to shift my casual “thanks” to a genuine “thank you,” and I think I’ve figured out a few “rules” for making the simple thanks register a bit more on the person thanked and have a bit more impact. I think of these as rules for thanking like Harriet Lerner’s rules for apologizing well (here’s her book and my posts on apologies).
Here were her rules for a good apology, from her column in Psychology Today "You Call THAT an Apology,":
So let me give it a try.
What makes a good everyday thank you:
Simple, right? "I really am sincerely thankful that you picked up that pen I dropped." "I genuinely thank you for pouring coffee for me." "I thank you for holding the door open for me when you saw how many bags I was carrying."
I’ve already been working on getting rid of the sarcastic thanks: “Thanks for letting the door slam in my face, pal.” And I’m getting better at skipping the thank you buts. No more “thanks for washing my cup but I wasn’t finished with it yet,” If I don’t like someone cleaning up after me or opening the door for me, I just don’t say thank you. I can say something else, but not an insincere “thanks.”
Being specific about the action doesn’t take many extra words. “Thanks for getting my pen!” “Thank you for the coffee.” But I find being specific usually goes along with the last requirement of a good everyday thank you—making a connection with the person you’re thanking. And that takes a little bit more effort.
Connecting with the person you’re thanking usually takes only eye contact. Looking the person in the eye as she hands your pen back when you say the genuine, “Thank you.” Pausing at the door long enough to look at the person holding it—or getting them to look up from their phone—before saying straight to their eyes, “Thank you!”
Adding some enthusiasm usually helps make that thank you more meaningful. We’re so used to tossing off “thanks” hither and yon that we can tell when someone is genuinely and with awareness thanking us for what we’ve done. So often just “Thank you!” with that exclamation mark spoken aloud makes a good everyday thanks.
Now be warned: just as Lerner says an apologizer shouldn’t expect forgiveness, a thanker shouldn’t expect a “you’re welcome.” Besides, you’re much more likely to get a “No problem.” And that’s part of my point here. It WAS a problem. You DID do something that I appreciate. Just let me thank you for it. (I know, I know, the “no problem” is just another way of completing the exchange, but I’m talking about having “thank you” have more of an impact on the person thanked).
So I like it when my sincere-specific-with-eye-contact-and-enthusiasm “thank you” gets a non-automatic, not-routine response of any kind. “You’re welcome,” said sincerely, is a good one. But don’t expect it. It’s just nice when it happens.
Why go to all the trouble? After all, it’s not really like an apology, where you have done something bad and need to acknowledge the hurt you’ve caused. But someone has done something good, even just a little thing, and it helps to acknowledge the pleasure the person has caused.
Our daily interactions are the ones that make a difference in our moods, our sense of connection with others, our social expectations and even our beliefs about the goodness (or badness) of people. Daily kindnesses can go a long way, and so can daily acknowledgment of those kindnesses. (I warned you I could be a bit sappy as well as independent. Cue the Hallmark movie music)
Since we already in America say thank you all the time, as Singh pointed out, let’s make it count.
So yes, I hope you can use Thanksgiving to give thanks to your families and friends and the people important to you.
And I hope we can use every day to give thanks to the strangers we encounter and the little acts of kindness in our shared inhabiting of the world.
Day to day, let’s give good thanks.
Happy thanksgiving. And thank you, dear readers, for reading to the end!
In my blog, I’ve regularly chosen a timely holiday as my topic, taking the event of the moment to explore how we shape our lives and how our lives are shaped.
Some, like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Halloween, let me explore personal meanings. Others, like Labor Day, Memorial Day, and Thanksgiving, have let me learn more about the holiday and even push back against some of the ways we’ve ended up acting within them. Occasionally, a holiday has let me play and make a fool of myself (yes, I’m thinking of my versions of the Twelve Genres of Christmas!)
But Veterans Day? I began at a loss. The day must celebrate Veterans, right? I mean, that's what it's called.
It took learning more about the other things this day has been called for me to understand what this day could—should—be about.
Words do matter.
Although Veterans Day hasn’t been a holiday our society has done much with recently, veterans are getting more attention in general now than the not-so-distant past (since 9/11?). They’re regularly brought center stage and applauded now at sporting events, given priority boarding at airports, offered discounts everywhere. And for Veterans Day, I’m sure that the holiday must also have received more attention recently. In my own town, the locals did resuscitate the Veterans Day Parade for the first time in many years, and people joined the parade or stood in the cold and mist to recognize Veterans Day.
But how else is the day acknowledged? We don’t get mail delivered that day, so opening our empty mailboxes may remind us that it’s a federal holiday. Do we even know how it differs from Memorial Day? They’re both about honoring soldiers, right?
I was pleased when I found the history of Veterans Day on the US Department of Veterans Affairs website because it showed me origins and meanings of the day that go well beyond what I understood. It showed me the original name--Armistice Day. And it showed me the original words of the proclamations. I found those words moving, and ones we should do better at sharing and acting upon.
"To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations…"
“It is fitting that the recurring anniversary of this date should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations”
“This date,” of course, refers to November 11. The date is not a random one. The original Armistice Day celebrated the armistice, as the website explains: “an armistice, or temporary cessation of hostilities, between the Allied nations and Germany went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. For that reason, November 11, 1918, is generally regarded as the end of 'the war to end all wars.'”
After World War I did not end all wars, after World War II, after Korea, the day to recognize the Armistice, the cessation of hostilities, became Veterans Day, the day to honor the veterans of all wars. From commemorating a ceasefire to commemorating soldiers.
We may have given up on the notion that we can end all wars, but the “optimism of will” that created this day originally should persist in how we honor this day. After the horrors of World War I, the people of the United States resolved not to honor their veterans but to honor the armistice and to keep the armistice going by rebuilding connections with other nations and other peoples.
The concurrent resolution by the US Congress on June 4, 1926, deserves to be read in full:
Whereas the 11th of November 1918, marked the cessation of the most destructive, sanguinary, and far reaching war in human annals and the resumption by the people of the United States of peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed, and
Notice the celebration of the resumption of “peaceful relations with other nations, which we hope may never again be severed.”
Notice the commemoration through activities “designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.”
Notice the invitation to the people to observe with ceremonies “of friendly relations with all other peoples.”
We understood then.
Having undergone the devastation of a brutal war, the hostility between nations, we understood the need to build peaceful relations, mutual understanding, and friendly relations with “all other peoples” and their nations.
We understood then.
What a different response to the situation today. The VA website ends with a statement of the important purpose of Veterans Day today:
"A celebration to honor America's veterans for their patriotism, love of country, and willingness to serve and sacrifice for the common good."
Only some of the original meaning remains in that statement. Certainly, we should honor veterans of all wars. Certainly, veterans deserve respect for their service and sacrifice.
But let’s notice those last four words, “for the common good.” And let’s define “the common good” as it was in the origins of this armistice day, as what was good for all peoples of all nations—mutual understanding and friendly relations. Let’s recommit to “patriotism” and “love of country” as doing what is good for our country by building global understanding and peaceful relations.
The world is different today, I know. September 11 has changed the meaning of November 11, even if the word for the day had never changed. We can’t depend on relations among nations to preserve peace. Some reject the possibility of mutual understanding; others are unwilling.
But how does it change the meaning of November 11 to focus not on the armistice but on the veterans? I’d like to think our goals remain the same—peaceful relations that will reduce the chance of more people becoming veterans of wars. In the Commonwealth of Nations, Armistice Day evolved into Remembrance Day.
So let's remember what we're remembering.
Let’s honor our veterans by recognizing what they have sacrificed and by doing everything in our power to keep others from having to make such sacrifices in the future. Let’s honor our veterans by reducing the number of future veterans.
Next year, at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, at the moment of the ceasefire, I will remember how it began, and I will understand better, and I will look for ways, even in these times of divided and dispersed hostility, to rebuild mutual understanding and peaceful relations with all peoples.
I feel a bit like Linus at the end of the Charlie Brown special proclaiming the true meaning of Christmas. But I hope a difference here might be that some of you, like me, might not have known of the original call behind Veterans Day, the original commemoration of armistice,
“to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding.”
That’s a purpose that calls for a different sort of response.
We understood then. Can we understand now, too?
Let's all meet for Armistice Day
We tell children to use their words when they’re angry, frustrated, or upset, not to scream or throw a tantrum or hit someone.
Or shoot someone.
I can't believe I'm here again, that we're here again.
I’m grieving the victims of this most recent shooting—this one in Texas, Sutherland Springs, Texas, on a Sunday morning at the First Baptist Church of Sutherland Spring. As I’m writing, an emergency medical technician is reporting 27 dead and 24 injured. Including children.
I’m beyond shock. How can we still be shocked when mass shootings are becoming so common?
I’m not beyond horror. Horrified. How have we become this? How has this become our community? How is this us?
I’m not beyond anger and rage. Those people in church did nothing to deserve this. No one does anything to deserve this. We should not have to live like this, with the thought that any public gathering might be the scene of the next mass murder. Someone needs to do something.
Legislators, where are you?
Leaders, where are you?
What are you doing to make this stop?
No, we don’t know all the reasons. Yes, it’s complicated. But our leaders, our legislators, our experts, our people need to do something.
Do something! Stop this! Someone just stop this!
I am not beyond sorrow and grief. Tears for those people, families, that community. Tears for all of us, once again mourning the loss of so many of us.
What I don’t want is to mourn the loss of “us.” Individuals are acting out, using their guns not their words. But they’re acting within our society—ours, the United States—because we make it possible.
So I use my words—grief, horror, anger, rage, sorrow, mourning—to try to hang on to an “us,” to feel like there is still an “us” who shares these feelings and these words.
Do words still matter? Can we do anything with words to make things change? Two weeks ago I urged us to act in response to the Las Vegas shooting and go beyond the scripted generic responses to such shootings. And now here we are again.
We can sign petitions, organize demonstrations, write letters to legislators. We can use our words as actions.
But at this moment my words feel completely inadequate. So do my tears. Like others, my heart is breaking for the victims, for us.
I don’t know what to say. I don’t know what to do. But those of us who can still speak need to raise our voices, to use our words loudly and insistently and with the full force of horror, sorrow, grief, and anger behind them.
Maybe that way our words can still matter.
But in my worst moment today, this moment, I’m not so sure they will.