By Mark Vander Vennen
The other day I read an article in Maclean’s, and it got me going. The article is called “Let’s finally call ‘violence against women’ what it really is,” written by Anne Kingston. Kingston is a fine journalist whom I have had the pleasure to meet.
I highly recommend this article. Kingston notes that we are now in the annual season of focusing on “eliminating violence against women.” November 25 is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. It begins 16 days of activism against gender-based violence, ending on December 10, Human Rights Day. December 6 marked the 30th anniversary of the murder of 14 women by Marc Lépine, a day which is now called a “National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.” Lépine specifically targeted what he called “feminists” studying engineering at the Université de Montréal’s École Polytechnique.
Kingston rightly laments that every year we express our alarm about violence against women, and then nothing changes. Why? Of course, one can speak of misogyny and a lack of political or cultural will. But what really struck me is a claim that I had not heard before: that our cultural use of language in describing violence against women is a real factor in sustaining our inexcusable lack of action.
What does she mean by that? Kingston notes when we speak of violence against women we speak in the “passive” voice, not the “active” voice. That’s a reference to grammar. A passive sentence construction does not identify “who” is doing something. It only describes what the result of the action is. Consider some passive sentence examples: “a truck was damaged.” “A child was struck.” “A baby was born.” Now consider these same sentences in an “active” voice: “A tree came down and damaged a truck.” “A car slid across the road and struck a child.” “Mary gave birth to a baby.”
What is the difference between these sentences? In the active voice, the source of the action is named. In the passive voice, the source of the action is not identified.
Kingston notes that our language about violence against women is in the passive voice. As a result, we do not name the source of the violence, or the man or men who are committing the violence. She uses an example of a recent murder of a woman. The news report headlines said “Machete attack leaves woman dead in Scarborough,” and “Woman killed in brutal machete attack”—as if a “rogue machete,” somehow acting independently, went flying through the air and happened to hit her.
She quotes Jackson Katz to say, “We talk about how many women were raped last year, not about how many men raped women. We talk about how many girls in a school district were harassed last year, not about how many boys harassed girls. We talk about how many teenage girls in the state of Vermont got pregnant last year, rather than how many men and boys impregnated teenage girls.” She references Elizabeth Sheehy: instead of saying “She was assaulted. She suffered a broken bone,” it’s critical to say, “He broke her forearm by smashing it with a hammer.” Even the term “violence against women” is itself a passive construction. By using this language, we put the focus on the recipient of the violence, and we take it away from the perpetrator.
What’s missing in this prevalent use of language? Accountability. Naming who is the source of violence, the one carrying it out, is missing. And when the perpetrators are not named, it is not possible to hold people accountable. When there is no real accountability (outside of a highly problematic, often ineffective criminal justice system), there will also be no change.
Over the past many years I have translated numerous books and essays from Dutch to English. The Germanic languages (German and Dutch, for example) are very fond of passive sentence construction. When I have translated, I have often needed to convert passive sentences to active sentences, in order to make the translation flow well in English. This requires making a decision about who or what is the subject of the sentence. And that is not always easy, because often there is more than one possibility.
Paul Tillich was a famous German theologian who immigrated to the United States. He once said that immigrating to the U.S. was the best thing that happened to him, because now he could “no longer hide behind the ambiguities of the German language.” By “ambiguities” he meant passive sentence construction. Perhaps he did not realize that those who want to can adroitly use passive sentence construction in the English language too. English-speaking people can also use language to avoid assigning responsibility. And perhaps he did not know that that trick of language is especially at play when we talk about men’s violence against women.
Let’s be vigilant about this! Until we change our language, we won’t bring accountability into our conversations about men’s violence against women. Without accountability, as we have seen over the past 30 years, nothing will change. And that would be inexcusable.
Mark Vander Vennen, MA, M.Ed, R.S.W., is the Executive Director of the Shalem Mental Health Network.