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Why does the press insist on misogynistic euphemisms?

Davidson's picture

I just finished reading this Guardian article on how Iraqi men are now paying assassins to kill off their wives and daughters for "shaming" the family, when I (once again) asked myself, "Why is the paper using the misogynistic euphemism 'honor killing?'" I can't think of any other crime, whether generic or hate,* in which we the press uses the terms preferred by the perpetrator of such crimes as its universal standard. Words matter and when we insist on calling torture "enhanced interrogation," genocide "ethnic cleansing," or hate crimes "honor killings" (the latter which not only sanitizes the murderous hatred, but makes it virtuous), we normalize and justify the atrocities being committed.

I have tried writing to The Guardian and other papers, including The Times and The Independent, about this and they have given me no response (besides the usual, "Thank you for writing" template). Would anyone else like to try writing them or offering suggestions as what to do?

Here's a Jackson Katz video that touches upon the topic when discussing how school shootings are discussed (e.g., "kids killing kids" rather than boys killing kids):

*Compare the Guardian's coverage of homophobic violence in Eastern Europe, which they (rightly) describe as a "crucible of hate."

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herb the verb's picture
Submitted by herb the verb on

Because the press is misogynistic.

Having said that, this is mixing two distinct cases.

In the one case, it is men killing women and girls and framing it in a way that excuses the patriachal culture, in the other case it really is kids (and yes, specifically boy kids) shooting kids, not girls, the speakers framing and axe to grind notwithstanding.

Just because we don't have angst-ridden Heathers shooting up suburban schools, doesn't mean teen girls are immune from being violent. It just depends on how you look at it.

Davidson's picture
Submitted by Davidson on

It's how we discuss the school shootings that's being discussed by Katz. And whenever girls commit violence, their gender is either the focus or a big factor in the discussion. That's just not true with many violent crimes committed by males in general.

Historiann's picture
Submitted by Historiann on

I think rape is usually framed in the U.S. media in terms preferred by the assailants: "sexual assault" instead of rape, and victims are usually referred to now as "accusers," as though victims can accuse, arrest, and prosecute perps all by themselves without the leadership of a prosecutor and the cooperation of a grand jury. Once the prosecutor and the grand jury, acting on behalf of the state, have decided that a crime was in fact committed, then there is in fact a "victim." (I haven't done the Lexus-Nexis search on this, but my sense is that "accuser" became the term of art used by most media organizations after the high-profile Kobe Bryant rape trial.) So rape victims are already portrayed unsympathetically as "accusers," suggesting that it's up to them to defend their claims (rather than the burden being on the state to prove its case.)

I still think you make a great point in this post. I just want to suggest that you don't need to go all the way to Iraq to find examples of crimes described in terms that are hostile to the victims.

amberglow's picture
Submitted by amberglow on

who kill, for another example.

there are a bunch of these labels that reinforce and validate rightwing, religious and patriarchial views (and the coverage almost always does) -- or reinforces a particular view of a current "enemy" or group we are supposed to be against, or that we're supposed to automatically give a pass to -- Especially connected to big powerful populations/religions like Christianity and Islam most of all.

and then there's the standard "be respectful of other cultures" (But of course, again it's only some)

They're totally reinforcing the Muslim=violent (and strange--"not like us") thing while also excusing/explaining it as not that bad--it's interesting. And this kind of story is far more commonly reported than a peaceful one, i find.

Suzie's picture
Submitted by Suzie on

Hi, Historiann. (See, I'm learning to use greetings!) Libel laws often govern the terms used by the media in criminal cases such as rape. State laws may define rape differently. For example, some states may use "rape" for forced intercourse and "sexual assault" for sexual contact that doesn't involve intercourse.

Similarly, reporters are supposed to avoid calling a homicide a "murder" until after someone has been convicted. The killer might end up being convicted of manslaughter, for example, not "murder" as defined under the law.
The 2000 AP Stylebook is online and explains this.

In some cases, everyone agrees that a rape occurred. An example would be Trisha Meili, the "Central Park Jogger." So, the media would call someone like her a "victim."

But in many cases, as with Kobe Bryant, physical evidence of sexual intercourse doesn't prove rape. The media can't prejudge whether the woman is telling the truth or not. Because the media usually don't reveal the name of rape victims, they can't simply refer to her by her name, as they can the defendant. If they can't use "victim' -- thus, implying that her side of the story is correct -- they have to call her something. Some reporters may use "the woman" on second reference or some other identifier, such as "the teen" or "the German woman" or anything that might differentiate her from others in the article. I did this because I didn't want to use the term "alleged victim," which others have used. Personally, I think "accuser" is better than "alleged victim."

I'd be curious if anyone has a better suggestion that would still be OK under libel laws.

Here's a response from the editors of the AP Stylebook, the journalism bible, on the subject:

A Poynter Institute column addressed "alleged victim" during the Bryant trial.

Meanwhile, this may become a moot point as more and more media (including blogs) post the names of victims. (I can say "victims" all I want in this construction). A lot of journalists are pushing for women to be named. Check out the comments to the Poynter column.

Colette Bancroft, an excellent writer, has a different take on it in the comments. She notes that the media uses "victim" (not "alleged victim") for other crimes, such as theft or carjacking, even though the "victim" may turn out to be lying.

(My argument would be that "victim" is not used in those cases if the accused says, "He gave me the money" or the car or whatever.)

It won't be surprising that men in the media are especially sensitive to the idea that a man might be falsely accused.

The NYT reported on the issue in the Bryant trial:

basement angel's picture
Submitted by basement angel on

The three inch wide ring of dark black bruises around kobe Bryant's victim's neck certainly were evidence of rape. You can't bruise someone that badly without hurting them badly.

I just want to move to the moon. I've about had it with earth folk.

Historiann's picture
Submitted by Historiann on

but I agree with Bancroft. If my house is robbed or my car stolen, I'm a robbery victim. We (and newspapers) take the word of victims all of the time. The fact that newspapers are so careful to tiptoe only around rape cases makes the larger point, which is that women aren't taken seriously as interpreters of their own experiences if they experience sexual assault. So, whatever the supposed reasons that newspapers use terms preferred by rapists--fear of libel, or a consensus among men that the real trouble with rape is that men are so vulnerable to false accusations--it's still an example of criminals driving the interpretation of the crime.

Suzie's picture
Submitted by Suzie on

Basement Angel, I agree with you, but apparently, the legal system didn't. I'm not trying to defend rapists; I'm just trying to explain how the media works. Knowing why the media does something will help those of us who want to change it.

Damon's picture
Submitted by Damon on

Whenever I hear the term used on television, it's usually preceeded by "so-called". Not only that, but on cable news opinion shows whenever the topic is discussed the stories pundits go out of their way to talk about how barbaric it is, which is something they find great pleasure in particularly because those that make the news are often in the Mid-East, and our news media is unabashedly Islamophobic. In the ways I've seen the term used, at least on the medium of television, it's usually used with a hint of irony in the reporters voice as if to call out how ridiculous the term is, particularly in our Western media. Perhaps, I simply haven't read and heard it used unironically, but I certainly haven't witnessed an inappropriate use of the term.

Davidson's picture
Submitted by Davidson on

Even if all the terms were used in "quotes" or otherwise ironically, isn't it odd that misogynistic violence is rarely called out by name? I mean, if Islamists targeted gays and called it, let's say, "moral enforcement," would we not refer to it as anti-gay violence? I can't think of any other type of crime in which everyone seems to insist on using the term preferred by the criminal. Again, even if it's in "quotes" or whatever, the term is still being used, it ("honor") is still being associated with the crime, which only serves to make it that much more difficult to counter the entrenched bigotry.

This is just one video I quickly found where even though the anchor once mentions "so-called 'honor' killings," but earlier uses it matter of factly and even the British authorities label them "honor" crimes:

Submitted by gob on

I had in fact allowed this term to creep into normality in my internal lexicon. I've given up on "ethnic cleansing", too, simply silently translating it as "genocide" whenever I see it.

One that infuriates me, and came up again last week: rapists who "fathered children with" their victims, as in this Guardian story. The headline even reads "Rapist who fathered nine children with his daughters is jailed"! It sounds pretty brutal to say he "fathered children on" his daughters. Gosh, we wouldn't want to use ugly words to describe ugly acts, now, would we?

It might be amusing for a student of language and culture to explore the reasons why we wouldn't say that the daughters "mothered" these children "with" their rapist-father.

Davidson's picture
Submitted by Davidson on

They should simply state that the father raped his daughter, resulting in several incest children (or something to that effect). "Fathered" (or even "mothered") takes all the positive associations of creating a family and attaches it to a man raping his own child. Again, the real danger is the power of associations. Words shape the perceptions that define our very reality. You associate "honor" with misogynistic violence and it will only serve to justify, even sanctify it, on a subconscious level, regardless it it's used in "quotes" or ironically. The same with "fathering" and child, incest rape. Notice how we don't consistently use such terms for any other crime, including generic crime, and yet with anti-female violence it's the standard.

Suzie's picture
Submitted by Suzie on

Keep in mind that many states do not recognize hate crimes against a woman because of her gender. Groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center don't track hate crimes against women. (I wrote about this on Echidne's site.) People still see attacks on women as something personal, without discussing the wider implications for women and men in society.

Liberal groups kept "gender" out of hate-crime legislation originally, for fear it would not pass otherwise. As far as I know, they've never rallied to help feminists include gender, although we did get the Violence Against Women Act.

I'm thinking the only hope we have of getting gender included is if LGBT groups get enough strength to put gender into the law in order to pass transgendered people. Liberals seem to get the concept of hate crimes against transpeople because of their gender identity.

Davidson's picture
Submitted by Davidson on

....we still see the very same terminology: no mention of "hate crime" or even misogynistic bigotry in reporting or how authorities discuss it--at all. My home state, Washington, includes gender and never once have I read about or heard a state authority use "hate crime" to describe any gender-based crime (If they do it is exceptionally rare). Last year, a man kidknapped, raped, and murdered a young girl on July 4th and there was no mention of gender even being a factor in any reporting or by the authorities even though this man only targeted women and girls for rape and murder. Around that same time, there was a report of a man who was beaten for being perceived to be Muslim (He was South Asian, Sikh). That incident was immediately identified as a hate crime by authorities and bigotry was always mentioned in every article. A man can be beaten and it'll rightly be condemned as a hate crime. A child could be raped and murdered and...nothing.

So even when gender is a hate crime factor in a state, misogyny is the bigotry that is erased from discussion. That's what scares me: I don't know if legislation will do anything unless political leaders commit to actually enforcing the law, which I don't see how they will because misogynistic violence is so out of control and heavily fortified by culture. Not even when a man singles out children of a group for mass slaughter do we call the misogyny out by name. The Amish schoolgirls were singled-out for rape and mass slaughter (fortunately, they were spared rape) with gender being the determining factor in why they were chosen and the press wouldn't even mention the possibility of misogyny being a factor. That's how bad it is.

Submitted by ohio on

I admit, this has always bothered me. "Honor killings" are not honorable. They are just killings. Does labeling them, qualifiying them this way, make them somehow easier to excuse? Seems that's the point of the original post, no?

The murder of Matthew Shepherd was murder. Labeling that young man's death a "hate crime" doesn't make him any less dead nor does it ease the grief of those who mourn him. If we are trying to send a message that a "hate" crime is perpetrated because someone is gay (or a woman or whatever the category), are we perhaps sending the opposite message that the murder of a queer (or woman, woman in burka, African-American man, whatever label) isn't murder? That it's somehow special---and while special can imply more important or more serious, it can also mean "occurred under special circumstances so don't give perpetratrors the punishment they have earned?" That's the downsided of accepting special status---it can and will be used against you when those in power find it useful to do so.

Or perhaps we're also sending a message that only really sick people, really aberrant people, kill queers or participate in honor killings, while more "normal" people kill regular people. See, you have to be bad to murder, but really really bad and full of hate to kill someone in what is labeled a hate crime. But the problem here is that hating fags (and hating women) remains pretty common and it's "normal" people who do the hating. The label "hate crime" further separates perpetrators from the public, when IMHO they are one in the same, just as it spearates victims of these crimes from the general public.

I understand tracking for sociological reasons or even to understand and stop these crimes, but murder is murder. Isn't that bad enough?

amberglow's picture
Submitted by amberglow on

it's not a specific person that is targeted and beaten or killed, but any person who happens to look gay or different or is a woman, etc-- or wears a turban or looks Mexican or Muslim, etc...

it's not like most violence and murders, where the perpetrators specifically target someone or already know that person or of them as individuals---it's specifically about getting any member of that group--and often about going out intentionally to get any member of that group--as we just had on Long Island with a group of teen boys who went out specifically -- to beat up Hispanics.

Submitted by ohio on

Or caught in the filter. I did use "hell" in the subject line...

But it went something like...

Some people go looking to beat the hell out of someone just people looking for fights in bars. People will use any excuse---how does this make targeting one group more hateful than targeting another?

What is the difference between Anglo men looking for Latino men to beat up and Anglo men looking for Anglo men from a different school to beat up? Or a different class? It's stupidity anyway you slice it and the thoughtlessness, the pointlesness, made it no different in the eyes of the law, until we created a new class of crime called hate crimes.

As if a dead straight white guy is less dead. And that's just not so.

Either we are at least trying to be equal in the eyes of the law or we are making exceptions---and on that path lies madness. The law ceases to be the law and becomes a nasty stick in the hands of those in power, used to swing at their convenience. "Enemy combatants" is just a handy label that allows us to treat the men we have detained in Guantanamo in an exceptional way that is exceptionally Unconstitutional and exceptionally cruel---and stupid. Either we believe in the rule of law, even when the targets of violence (or maybe especially when we are the targets of violence and it's so much harder to hold onto your principles), or we don't, bro.

Murderers who kill women because they have a tradition of killing women are still murderers. It's sort of like clitorectomy---I don't have to ponder it to know I'm against it. There's no way to pretty up or explain the violence and why try to wrap it up in language that makes it somehow all so terribly understandable? The point of the law isn't to understand---it is to give all equal protection and a fair shake. Once exceptions are made, then equal protection goes out the fucking window.

I really, really do understand the reasons for tracking the cultural and sociological markers of crime. I think that kind of study can elicit solid ways to measure the effectiveness of intervention and prevention, but it has no place in legal code. Our justice system has enough clogging it up without the hairballs of ambiguity.

a little night musing's picture
Submitted by a little night ... on

The hate crimes concept always has bothered me, and you've laid out my discomfort better than I could.

That having been said, once a society (such as ours) begins to go down the hate crimes path, it becomes a question of either get onboard or get forgotten. Being a hate crime becomes a way right wrongs, replacing others. People need to have it brought home that women die for no better reason than that they are women, because (whatever excuses are offered) men in the same position wouldn't even be close to death [unless Gay].

What's needed in the end, is social disapproval by people who count. And the price of that is always high.

Submitted by ohio on

Ooo, like Monk.

Our legal system, as flawed as it is (and it is) does strive to serve justice. I mean real justice, not the kind that people mutter about when what they really mean is executing people. If we've already given up that we are all equal in the eyes of the law in exchange for symbolic legislation that garners some politican votes and some moral entrepeneur the opportunity for more grant money, I say, we got a crappy deal.

I refuse to be given greater or lesser treatment in the eyes of the law because of my gender, height, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, eye color, fantastic good looks, how much money I have in my pocket (fourteen bucks, where did that come from?), or any other reason. I know it doesn't work like that but it should. Giving up and demanding special treatment does not advance the cause of creating a legal system that gets a little closer to fair is a losing proposition, not just for me and those like me, because once the line is crossed, it can't be uncrossed.

We have very powerful machinery for publicizing these crimes. Hellsbells, entire cable channels are devoted to recounting crime in all of its salicious and sadistic glory. We can speak of them, write of them, scream about them. We can demand the full and fair force of the legal system apply to all of us regardless of gender, height, class, ethnicity, religion, sexual preference, eye color, fantastic good looks, how much money you have in your pocket, or any other reason.

Justice isn't supposed to see any of that. Justice, like love, is blind. It is also, unlike love, deliberate and cold. It's supposed to be. Hate crime legislation is lukewarm and cynical symbolism designed to let people off the hook about solving real problems caused by bigotry.

a little night musing's picture
Submitted by a little night ... on

I think you've summed up my disquiet with this approach. which means, I think, that different people, having different approaches, find me agreeing to disagree with them this morning.

My job here is done!

I won't let that stop me, though!

Suzie's picture
Submitted by Suzie on

If someone commits murder, he may still get convicted of murder. But the crime also may be adjudicated as a hate crime if there are other factors involved. The criminal justice system takes many different factors into consideration in labeling crimes or upping the penalties. Did the person use a weapon when committing the crime? Is he a repeat offender? Did he plan the crime? Was he sane when he committed the crime? Was his victim injured? Was his victim under a certain age? Was his victim disabled or elderly? If the "hate crime" designation is "special treatment," what would you call these other factors?

I wouldn't mind the "hate crime" category abolished, only because it will always be limited in which categories it covers, just like laws against discrimination. But I agree with the earlier comment that, once we have it, it should include gender.

Davidson, thanks for your info. Amberglow, in a hate crime, a specific person can be targeted. For example, people in a neighborhood may vandalize the home of a person of a different ethnicity. They aren't targeting everyone from that group, just this person who has moved next-door. Sometimes people do know each other.