Sunday, August 8, 2010

America the Euphemism

American politicians tend to speak quite extravagantly when discussing the United States and its place in the world, as I detailed in an earlier post. It is not uncommon to hear the United States described as the greatest nation in history, a "city upon the hill," etc. Despite this penchant for exaggeration where American politics are concerned, it appears that when issues really matter American simply cannot spit the words out.
Turn on the nightly news and one will frequently hear stories about sexual assault...

Sexual Assault pretty much always means the rape of one person by another, almost always a man victimizing a woman, and yet the news, politicians and other media, do not call rape, rape. This is a real problem. Rape is one of the most horrific crimes people can perpetrate on others. American do hear, in terms of foreign relations, a willingness to name rape, though seemingly at a diminishing rate, such as in Bosnia's "Rape Camps," or "rape as a weapon of war" in such places as Sudan and Uganda, but when it comes to Americans or American politicians or anything involving the American backyard the crime metamorphoses into "sexual assault."

To understand how this diminishes the gravity of the crime we must consider that in many states Assault is a crime that occurs when someone lays a hand on someone. Assault charges can be brought for just tweaking a nose on someone else or a slap across the face, or something similar. So, by extension this means that sexual assault could be something as simple as pinching a buttocks or something. However, in that regard we have coined the term "Sexual Harassment," since only a long pattern of such abusive behavior can be criminally prosecuted it seems, not the random unwelcome grope on the subway. So once again we take the level of a crime and reduce it in severity.

The inability to call rape rape demonstrates a marked inability to deal with the severity of the crime and to respect women (and men and especially children) and understand their needs. Beyond this we censor the word rape out of our songs on the radio, including those specifically about confronting us with the ugly realities of life as in some Hip-Hop music, and we also try to eliminate it from sight.

Last TV season, during NBC's failed 10PM Jay Leno experiment multiple TV critics were concerned about moving Law & Order: SVU into the 9PM time slot because of its subject matter. This concern is exactly the problem with American society. Americans clearly want to watch these forensic shows like CSI, Law & Order, Bones, etc, as evidenced by their sheer numbers, spin-offs and ratings. They also want to watch Dateline and 48 Hours, two "news" shows which almost always features gruesome murders and the investigations pertaining to them, and yet at the same time Americans want to remain insulated and sanitized from that ugly reality of life.

As many in the Urban Studies field have discussed (Michael Sorkin, Michael Pacione, among many others), Americans want to live in a Disney theme park version of the world. They cherish the homely facades, the quaint nostalgias, and the easy black and white morality. The ugliness and complexity of life tries to intrude in the reality of war, violence, rape, torture, racism, and terrorism, and so Americans sanitize their language and speak instead of "conflict," "sexual assault," "enhanced interrogation techniques," "racial insensitivity" and.. hmm, strangely terrorism. What does that say about the words and powers that be that they will speak of terrorism against Americans by "jihadis" before they will speak of the rape of American women by American men, or the torture of those same "jihadis" by Americans? (Discuss!)

Our very language demonstrates how out of touch with reality our public culture has become, and, clearly, the problems this disconnect creates is not just with the big news issues of the decade, of war, peace and terror, but beyond that and deeper into American domestic life.

Women, children, and men are raped every single day in this country. By obliquely referencing these crimes and using euphemistic language, we diminish the impact such crimes have on the victims and we allow ourselves to get away with NOT making the tough decisions, doing the right things in our personal lives, and also with the politicians whom we are obligated to hold accountable for their inaction.

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