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.