Six Steps for Using Everyday Language to Help Prevent Violence


When you think about how you can help prevent sexual or interpersonal violence, what comes to mind? Learning how to be an active bystander through workshops or trainings like One Act? Keeping your friends safe when partying or socializing? Joining a student organization like Project Dinah? These are all great ways to get involved in violence prevention and make our campus a safer place for everyone!

There is not just one way to get involved or prevent violence, because violence operates on a continuum of different levels, ranging from overt acts to participation in a culture that accepts or normalizes those acts. For example, public health professional Lydia Guy conceptualizes violence as a continuum of overlapping circles, ranging from actions complicit in systems of oppression (like racism, sexism, heterosexism, classism, or ableism) to less frequent, more overt acts of violence that most would agree should be treated as violent crimes. The actions toward the “more frequent” end of the spectrum (for example, catcalling or telling racist “jokes”) hold systems in place that make it possible for the “less frequent” violence (sexual assault, rape, or murder) to happen.

            Making our campus safe can start with considering how our everyday language and conversations shape the overall culture that allows or deters violence on our campus. Most examples of language that contribute to violent culture happen frequently and are less noticeable. These ways of communicating not only reflect the culture we live in, but also shape the ways we know how to describe and react to potential situations of violence.

"Languages" by Chris JL, Flickr Creative Commons
“Languages” by Chris JL, Flickr Creative Commons

Examples of this kind of language may include:

  • Trivializing assault or other interpersonal violence, such as casually or jokingly using the terms “rape” or “stalking” (“That test raped me” or “I was totally Facebook stalking you earlier”)
  • Language that contributes to the marginalization of a particular group, such as telling racist, classist, or homophobic jokes, using male-based generics (like “all men are created equal”), or other microaggressions (for example, assuming that everyone you meet is heterosexual when you ask about their dating life)
  • Language that contributes to the silencing or invalidation of victims/survivors of violence, such as victim-blaming or shaming people for their sexual history, choice, or expression (“what a slut”)
  • Language that conflates sexual and violent imagery, like saying “I hit that,” or someone got “banged” or “screwed,” that normalize the combination of violence and sexuality
  • Language that propagates the myth that men are unable to control their sexual urges (“boys will be boys”)—this is not only insulting to men, but can also perpetuate the permissibility of acting on these urges, without regard to the consent of sexual partners.

 

            The good news is that we can also use language to help prevent violence – starting today! Here are some ways you can help change culture and make sure people know our campus is a place that does not tolerate violence of any kind.

  1. Be purposeful with your words. Being conscious of the history and meanings of the words can be extremely powerful. It can be helpful to think about whether language choices make light of violence, shame survivors of violence, or contribute to the marginalization of certain groups of people. Make the decision as often as possible to avoid language that contributes to violent and/or oppressive culture.
  2. Keep your friends accountable, too! People may not be aware of how their language impacts violence. Gently pointing out violent or oppressive language from friends, partners, or acquaintances can create respectful and productive dialogue. Depending on the situation and comfort level, this may as simple as saying “hey, that’s not cool/funny,” or pulling them aside to talk later. It can also be powerful to ask others to identify any language that they think is violent, oppressive, or disrespectful from others.
  3. Stand up to oppressive “jokes.” Lately, my favorite way to do this has been simply saying, “I don’t get it… What do you mean?” The person telling the joke may have a hard time explaining!
  4. Use language to create a community of respect. For example, make an effort to honor the pronouns that a person chooses to go by, whatever they may be, or respect others’ agency by asking how they identify rather than making assumptions based on the way they look or act.
  5. Critically examine the media. For example, in a news story covering a sexual assault case, do reporters include unnecessary details — like what the victim/survivor was wearing, or their sexual history? How can phrasing affect the way the public — or the jury — perceives a crime? Overall, how does language affect the way we view the world?
  6. Educate yourself with some further reading! Here are some helpful articles to start with:

 

If you witness behavior that may cross a line into the territory of harassment or discrimination, check out UNC’s new policy for prohibited discrimination, harassment, and related misconduct for options and resources.

One thought on “Six Steps for Using Everyday Language to Help Prevent Violence

  1. Mary White October 10, 2014 / 7:35 am

    Great article. You make some good points. I knew we needed to be intentional about respecting those who are different from us but I never thought of it as a way of preventing harassment and assault. Thank you.

    Like

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