Lies and Consequences

Rather than go bonkers over Trump and his minions defying Congress and the Constitution while lying lying lying, or the carnage in Venezuela spilling onto the rest of the continent, or so many other choices for driving one up the wall and through the ceiling, I had to do something positive. Fast.

Not to be a chirpy Pollyanna, but as former Congresswoman Pat Schroeder used to say, you can’t wring your hands and roll up your sleeves at the same time—and acting to change things always makes me feel better. Even if it doesn’t have an immediately identifiable effect, it’s a gesture of faith in a future.

So I rang up our superb president of the Women’s Media Center, wonder-woman Julie Burton, and together we midwifed a new WMC project into life. Keep in mind that in addition to everything else it does, the WMC——founded by Jane Fonda, Gloria Steinem, and myself——publishes regular Reports, like the Status of Women in Media report, so valuable that journalists refer to the WMC as the go-to place for statistics and analyses on sex and race—and on other subjects as well. We always try to add recommendations or guidelines at the back of all reports. Some reports are subject specific, like 10 Do’s and Don’ts on How to Sensitively Interview Sexualized Violence Survivors, or Writing Rape: How Journalists Cover Campus Rape, or The Women’s Media Center Guide to Covering Reproductive Issues, and Name It, Change It: The Women’s Media Center Guide to Gender-Neutral Coverage of Women Candidates.

All the above reports are available for free on the WMC website. They are thorough, scrupulously researched, and rich in information.

But the new project we began working on will feature——in keeping with today’s lightning pace and the seeming epidemic of superficial attention deficit disorder affecting the public——swift, short, crisp reads (one pagers!) also rich in information.

It was inspired by work the WMC itself has done in the area of data research and guides for action (see above). It was also inspired by a feminist organization in Britain called Level Up. Level Up has recently won its campaign calling for the media to change the way it reports on fatal incidents of domestic violence. The United Kingdom has two leading press regulators, IPSO and IMPRESS (the US has the FCC but it’s been rendered toothless) and both IPSO and IMPRESS are finally adopting guidelines in a bid to combat irresponsible reporting that exacerbates the trauma for families of domestic homicide victims. The guidelines–written by Level Up’s coalition of academics, survivors’ families, and representatives from domestic violence shelters and VAW activist NGOs—suggest to journalists ways of reporting that are safe, sensitive, and true. There are five tips in the Level Up campaign that will be adopted in Britain. Here they are:

1. Accountability: place responsibility solely on the killer, which means avoiding speculative ”reasons” or “triggers,” or describing the murder as an uncharacteristic event. [“He always seemed such a lovely man!”] Domestic homicides are usually underpinned by a long-standing sense of ownership, coercive control, and possessive behaviors. They are not random events.

2. Accuracy: name the crime as domestic violence instead of ”tragedy” or ”horror,” and include the National Domestic Violence Helpline at the end of the article, post, or broadcast news report.

3. Dignity: avoid sensationalizing language and invasive or graphic details that would compromise the dignity of the dead woman or her surviving family members.

4. Equality: avoid insensitive or trivializing language or images.

5. Images: avoid using stock images that reinforce the myth that it’s only a physical crime.

This is excellent advice that ought to be obvious, but in a patriarchy is not. I applaud Level up, which was founded in 2016 by a group of feminist activists with the aim of tackling sexism in the UK by education and activism. And I’m excited that there will be a series of WMC Guides—again, one pagers—for journalists (and everyone else) clarifying accurate language on a number of subjects: sexual harassment at work, domestic violence, domestic homicide, campus sexist violence . . . you get the point. This is precisely the kind of thing that the Women’s Media Center does brilliantly. We’ll keep you up-to-date as the WMC Guides project take shape over the next months. I’m grateful to Level Up for the inspiration, and to Julie Burton for both inspiration and perspiration.

For me, the misuse of language is a constant ongoing act of real violence, with real consequences. It’s a particularly dangerous form of violence because it gets inside our heads and affects the way we look at the world, affects how and what we think. When the anti-woman, anti-science, anti-choice people refer to late-term abortion as “partial birth abortion,” that’s a lie, and a political act of violence against the woman involved—and against the truth. For that matter, when reporting abortion restrictions, referring to ”the life of the mother” is a misnomer and a misleader, a lie. It should always be “the life of the woman.” Public attitudes changed when, thanks to the Women’s Movement, we all began to use the word survivor instead of victim when referring to sexual assault and domestic violence cases——unless of course the woman did not survive.

Naturally, this reframing toward honesty and reclaiming of consciousness through language is vital not only in terms of fighting sexism.

For instance, for some time now I’ve noticed with concern that white people only identify race when talking about persons of color. (Persons of color, to be sure, have noticed this since Noah’s flood.) But I and other whites never (or very rarely) identify white people as such—which implies that white is the generic, a synonym for “normal.” I don’t believe in being ”color-blind” because in a racist society like ours that turns out be a lie, and a denial of the human suffering caused by racism. Instead, I long for us to become “color literate,” all of us, so identifying white people as such is important. And wow is it ever a consciousness-raising experience. It took almost three days before I could find a news report with information about the ethnicity of the latest killer who shot up the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California: he was white, male, young, and Christian. That’s hardly surprising, since the majority of terrorist acts in the United States are committed by white supremacists. But had he been a Muslim or a person of color, you can bet we would have been told that immediately.

All of these small changes aren’t so small. How we speak affects how we think and act. Furthermore, in acting with a deliberate difference in a climate sulfurous with lying, obfuscation, and chicanery you give yourself, and hopefully others, oxygen.

As for incoherent Trump and his obsequious sycophants who claim any such examination of language is “PC,” I dismiss these Putrid Clods by repeating what I wrote years ago, that our PC really stands for Plain Courtesy. These days, I could add that it might also stand for Preferable Cognition, or Persistent Clarity, or Principled Care, or People Coalescing, or . . . make up your own version! I recommend it. Playing with words in the service of truth is the best fun you can have sitting up. And they matter.