I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.
Someone posted a link to this article on Facebook this morning, and it caught my eye. As many of you know, I lost my brother in law to suicide almost two and a half years ago. The article dealt with the manner in which we talk about suicide. Specifically, it focused on the expression “committing suicide.” I imagine most of us have used that expression many times, and never thought about its origin. The reason that “committed” is part of the expression, is that until fairly recently (the last fifty years or so) suicide was a crime. As in, committed murder, committed armed robbery.
I will not dwell on the sheer jackassery of suicide being an illegal act, as though the notion of a jail sentence would deter someone who is in that kind of despair.
It got me to thinking about the inherent power our words have to lift up other people or to cause them pain. The words we CHOOSE. The words we say don’t just happen, they are always a decision.
Yesterday, I got back from vacation. I sat down to watch some tv, and saw that Cold Justice, a reality show on TNT that follows a prosecutor and crime scene investigator reopening cold murder cases and trying to get justice for the victims, had a spin-off that focuses on sex crimes.
Perhaps I should start by saying that I am not triggered by watching shows that deal with the subject of sexual assault or child abuse. Many survivors are. I don’t know why I am not, but I’m not. This show can be graphic, and I imagine very upsetting for some people to watch. I think the people who go on this show are warriors, and I am moved by and proud of their bravery. Talking about these things openly is how things change- I truly believe that. As a survivor, there is also great satisfaction for me in seeing other survivors get justice within the legal system, and to see the amazing women and men who pursue these cases tirelessly. Theirs is the work of the angels.
The pilot focused on an elderly woman, attacked in her home. I won’t get into details, I’ve no desire to upset anyone for whom such a show would be triggering. The team brought in a detective who specializes in sex crimes from the LA police department. He said, at one point during the episode, that “When you kill someone, you take their life, and when you sexually assault someone, you take away their soul.”
Let me preface what I am about to say by stating unequivocally that I think this is a tremendously good man, a kind man, and incredibly talented at what he does. I thank God for the men and women who do this work, work that must weigh on their hearts so heavily.
I was sexually assaulted as a child. My body was violated and injured. I was emotionally harmed. Did it weigh on my soul? Certainly. But I promise you, I still have one. The woman in the case they were pursuing, a sweet and beloved music teacher who plays the organ at her church and has the kindest face I’ve seen in a good long while, most certainly still has hers.
It reminds me of things I’ve read and heard over the years, and that I never really bothered to challenge because I knew they were well intentioned. I think it is an attempt to empathize with the horror of the crime. How many times have you heard rape referred to as a “fate worse than death” or the crime as “worse than murder” or heard someone say, “I’d rather die than be raped?”
I can assure you, good people, no. No, you would not. I can say that because when I was being assaulted I thought I was going to die- and all I wanted to do was live. That’s the only thing I remember about how I felt, other than physically. I just wanted to live.
You can heal from rape and sexual abuse. Murder is final. But that idea, that rape takes away your soul? That’s harmful. If you are in the aftermath of trauma and questioning your worth- which is what that crime does to you- hearing someone say that? That just validates the lie so many victims come to believe. That their lives are over. That they are dead inside. I felt pain when I heard him say that, even though I knew his heart was in the right place.
What we say, and how we say it MATTERS. Language has power. I remember hearing Oprah have a conversation with a rap artist about the “N” word. He was making the argument that it had been reclaimed within the African American community. Oprah made the point that at every lynching that had ever taken place, you can be assured the victim was called that word. That word has a history and a meaning, and it is wielded as a weapon.
I’ve heard many people talking about political correctness lately. I’ve heard people touting Donald Trump as “refreshing” because he eschews it.
I think when people talk about political correctness it’s a couple of things melded together. Sometimes I think it means how we refer to people, and sometimes I think it means our ability to take a joke about something personal- gender, race, ethnicity etc.
I am only going to talk about the former because the latter is a more complex topic and I don’t know how to articulate it well.
Language evolves, just as we do. As our attitudes change, so do the words we use. I will use an example that is near and dear to my heart. Let us discuss the use of the word retarded. The term ‘mentally retarded’ used to be the standard, accepted term for someone with intellectual, social or emotional developmental delays. Doctors used it, professionals used it, experts used it. As our understanding developed, so did our language.
Somewhere along the line, though, the word retarded began to be used as a pejorative. It became an insult. It became, to some people, a synonym for stupid, or senseless. It became a staple in the arsenal of things school children call each other, without a single thought about the origin of the word, or the entire population its use degrades. I still hear it used. By adults. On a regular basis.
I’ve spent a lot of time in Special Ed classrooms. I’ve worked with countless kids who at one time would have been classified as mentally retarded but are now diagnosed with Down Syndrome, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury etc. Not one of them, NOT ONE, was stupid or senseless.
In high school, it was very popular to call something, or someone gay for the same reasons. You’re so gay. That’s so gay. I was guilty of saying that all the time. Then I joined my local community theater and met people that were openly gay. It began to strike me how awful it was to use that word as an insult, so I stopped. It wasn’t that hard, guys. When I knew better, I did better.
Let me tell you what is both stupid and senseless- continuing to use a word or expression once you know it is causing someone pain. If your need to use that language is more important to you than someone else’s feelings I have news for you, you aren’t ‘plain-spoken,’ and you aren’t ‘telling it like it is.’
You’re an asshole.
If you are legitimately bent out of shape about having to use a different word, then you are looking to be bent out of shape. People who do that are successful, but only 100% of the time.
I do not think, for one second, that detective is an asshole. I think that he cannot know how that sentence feels when it is heard by someone who has experienced rape. So I am telling him. I’m sending a link to this post to the show, in the hopes that going forward they think more carefully about the language they use when talking about survivors of sexual assault. I think they are good people doing heroic work. I think they care about what they say and the impact it has. Once they read this, they will know better. Let’s see what they do.