Banal sexism

Last month I wrote about David Bonderman, the billionaire businessman who resigned as a director of Uber after suggesting that appointing more women to the board would mean ‘more talking’. Allegedly he meant this comment as a joke; but even if no one present had been offended, you have to wonder who would have found such a hoary old cliché amusing. An enormous amount of sexism is like this: thoughtless, repetitive, trite and formulaic. What—as bad stand-up comedians say—is that about?

Back in 1995, Michael Billig wrote a book about a phenomenon he called ‘banal nationalism’. The term ‘nationalism’ is most commonly used to denote what Billig refers to as ‘hot’ nationalism—a political ideology driven by strong emotions, which is often associated with conflict and violence. But his point was that there’s a less overt, lower-level form of nationalism which we don’t generally call by that name. Unlike the ‘hot’ variety, its main function is not to foment conflict or hatred of the Other. It’s to maintain our awareness of ourselves as national subjects—keep ‘the nation’ as a concept ticking over at the back of our minds. In Billig’s words:

National identity is remembered in established nations because it is embedded in routines of life that constantly remind, or ‘flag’ nationhood. However, these reminders or ‘flaggings’ are so numerous, and they are so much a part of the social environment, that they operate mindlessly, rather than mindfully.

The word ‘flag’ in this quote is a pun: one obvious daily reminder of nationhood is the national flag, flying (or as Billig puts it, ‘hanging limply’) on hundreds of public buildings. But banal nationalism takes subtler forms too, and many of them have to do with language.  For instance, the use of first person ‘we/us’ to mean ‘the people of this nation’, whereas the people of other nations are referred to with the third person ‘they/them’. The presence on every high street of businesses with names like the ‘Nationwide Building Society’ and—until recently—‘British Home Stores’. TV programmes hailing viewers with ‘Good Morning Britain’. Formulaic phrases that reference people’s shared membership of a nation, whether explicitly (‘best of British luck’) or implicitly (‘it’s a free country’).

The same idea can be applied to sexism.  Sexism also has ‘hot’ forms, and those are the ones mainstream discourse finds it easiest to recognise and condemn. The western media have no difficulty in recognising the sexism of the Taliban and Boko Haram; the more liberal parts of the western media have no difficulty in recognising the sexism of Gamergaters and Donald Trump.  But what you might call ‘banal sexism’—ordinary, unremarkable, embedded in the routines and the language of everyday life—is a different story. It does often go unnoticed, and when feminists draw attention to it they’re accused of taking offence where none was intended or embracing ‘victim culture’. These knee-jerk defences are often delivered with an air of surprise—as if the people responsible hadn’t realised until that moment that anyone could possibly dissent.

The idea that women talk incessantly is a classic example of banal sexism—it’s something people trot out on autopilot, as if they were commenting on the weather.  Most remarks about the weather fall into the category of small talk, or what the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski called ‘phatic communion’: their function is not to exchange information, but just to establish common ground and reassure others of our good intentions. That’s why statements like ‘lovely day today’ are almost invariably met with agreement: ‘Yes, beautiful!’ It would be odd to respond with something like ‘well actually it’s two degrees below the mean temperature for mid-July’. That might be an impressive demonstration of your meteorological knowledge, but it would also reveal your social incompetence, since you’d have missed the whole point of a phatic exchange. It’s the same with banal sexism: challenging the proposition (‘well, actually studies show that men talk more than women in most situations’) will be seen as a peculiar and hostile act. It’s especially hard to challenge a joke, because no one wants to be accused of lacking a sense of humour.

In my youth I didn’t understand this. I remember the first time I ever heard Chas & Dave’s pop classic ‘Rabbit’, a jolly cockney moan about women who give their husbands earache. It was 1980, and—at the age of 21—I had recently discovered my inner Radical Feminist. I thought, ‘you may sell that record today, but it won’t be long before you’re history’.  I was wrong: nearly 40 years later, the myth of the Woman Who Never Shuts Up remains ubiquitous in popular culture. Consider, for instance, this advertisementIMG_7139 for cruising holidays, which was recently photographed by a Swiss follower of this blog*:

Translated into English, this says: ‘Peace/quiet on holiday? Make your wife simply speechless’.  It’s a banal sexism double whammy, combining the old ‘rabbit, rabbit’ cliché with the idea that you can always shut a woman up by spending your hard-earned wages on something she wants. The ad’s presuppositions are both insulting and false (women don’t talk more than men, and according to one 2013 industry survey they make about 80% of household travel plans), but whoever came up with it seems not to have been concerned about offending potential customers.

Nor do I suspect its creator of deliberately courting controversy, though that’s certainly a strategy some advertisers have used. Banal sexism doesn’t provoke outrage. It occupies the part of the spectrum that runs from ‘seen but unnoticed’ (like the ‘default male’ convention which I discussed in an earlier post) through to ‘annoying but not worth getting all fired up about’. You might shake your head, roll your eyes, post a photo with a scathing comment on Facebook, but most people wouldn’t bother to make a formal complaint.

But sometimes the zeitgeist changes, and a form of sexism which has previously been tolerated gets moved from the ‘banal’ into the ‘hot’ category. Last year, for instance, a friend of mine spotted this greeting card, womenpart of a range addressed to men, in a university bookshop. Greeting cards in general are like a bottomless well of banal sexism, and ‘humorous’ cards like this have been around forever: though feminists have long found their message objectionable, most people have treated it in the same way as the ‘make your wife simply speechless’ ad, as an essentially harmless (if perhaps tasteless) joke based on the banal trope of ‘the eternal battle of the sexes’.

But recently more people have become aware (thanks in part to the work of feminists like Karen Ingala Smith and her Counting Dead Women project) that in the UK a man actually does kill a woman, most commonly a current or former partner, about every 2-3 days. If you’ve thought about that statistic, you’re less likely to let a joke about ‘shooting women and burying them in the garden’ pass without protest. I wasn’t surprised to hear that my (feminist) friend had complained, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the bookshop manager had agreed with her–and had promptly withdrawn the card from sale.

But the issue here is not just about the (un)acceptability of joking about male violence. Banal sexism is also exemplified by the formulas used in serious news stories about the killing of women by men. In France (where the statistics are similar to the UK’s), the journalist Sophie Gourion has set up a tumblr called Les Mots Tuent (‘words kill’) to document and criticise the linguistic ‘banalisation’ (‘normalisation/trivialising’) of violence against women and girls. She is exasperated by the constant repetition of phrases like crime passionel (‘crime of passion’, a category that does not exist in current French law), drame familial (‘family drama’, typically referring to ‘family annihilation’ cases where a man murders his partner and their children before killing himself) and pétage de plomb (‘blowing a fuse’, ‘flipping/freaking out’, ‘having a meltdown’). As she notes, these terms imply that the perpetrator was overcome by a sudden, uncontrollable impulse—whereas in fact many of these killings turn out to have been premeditated, not uncommonly by men who have long histories of domestic violence.

Similar formulas are well-established in the English-speaking media. In 1992, Kate Clark published an analysis of the Sun’s reporting of violence against women and girls, and found a pattern in the language used to label perpetrators and victims. In cases where ‘innocent’ women (in the Sun’s worldview that meant young girls or dutiful wives and mothers) were killed or assaulted by strangers, the perpetrators were given dehumanising labels like ‘beast’, ‘fiend’, ‘maniac’ or ‘monster’.  By contrast, reports of domestic violence, including homicide, tended to label men in ways that both humanised them and emphasised their own status as victims. One man who killed his wife and then himself was referred to as a ‘tormented’, ‘debt-ridden Dad’ (the word ‘tormented’ recurred in the reporting of so-called ‘family tragedies’); another who shot his wife and her mother dead was described as a ‘spurned husband’. Even the affectionate diminutive ‘hubby’ appeared in one report about a man whose 12-year history of domestic violence was revealed in court after he almost killed his wife.

Kate Clark’s data were taken from reports that had appeared in the late 1980s, but much of her analysis remains pertinent today. In Ireland last year, for instance, when a man named Alan Hawe stabbed his wife Clodagh to death, strangled their three sons and then hanged himself, the case was reported in both the Irish and British media as a ‘family tragedy’. The Mirror printed a photo which showed the family (in the words of the caption) ‘smiling together before all five lost their lives’.  ‘Lost their lives’ suggests an accident rather than the intentional killing which actually took place, but in the ‘family tragedy’ frame, as Clark’s earlier study found, the killer is usually portrayed as another victim, and often as the primary victim. In the Hawe case, again typically, much of the media’s attention focused on the mental ‘torment’ that must have driven Alan Hawe (described in numerous sources as a ‘real gentleman’ and a pillar of the community) to such extremes. Some commentators even portrayed him as a victim of sexism—the sexism of a culture which does not permit men to show weakness or express emotion.

This representation only began to be questioned after a blog post entitled ‘Rest in peace, invisible woman’, by the Dublin-based feminist writer Linnea Dunne, was picked up by the mainstream media. Dunne remarked on the way media reporting centred on the killer and his imagined state of mind (there was no actual evidence that Alan Hawe had any history of mental illness), while those he killed were treated as minor characters, or erased from the story entirely. Even the discovery of the family’s dead bodies was couched in terms that adopted the killer’s perspective: they were said to have been discovered by ‘his mother-in-law’ (aka Clodagh Hawe’s mother and the children’s grandmother).

By contrast with the keen interest they took in his mental state, reporters did not ask if Alan Hawe had a history of domestic violence. It would later turn out that he did: in the words of one family friend, ‘he controlled everything around him, he controlled how his family lived, he controlled how they died’. It would also emerge that Clodagh Hawe’s family, initially portrayed as grief-stricken but forgiving, had fought an eight-month battle to have the killer’s body removed from the grave in which he had originally been buried alongside his victims.

As time went on it became clearer and clearer that the framing of this story by most of the press had persistently obscured the material facts. And this is far from being an isolated example. This month, the UK press has been reporting on the case of Francis Matthew, a Briton living in Dubai, who killed his wife Jane with what the Emirati authorities described as ‘a strong blow on the head with a solid object’. Initially Matthew claimed that the attack had been perpetrated by burglars who broke into their home. Later, when it was clear this story would not stand up, he admitted that he had thrown a hammer at his wife during ‘a row’, but he continued to insist that her death was an accident. This example differs from the Hawe case in that there was only one victim: no children were involved and the perpetrator is still alive. But reports on it (like this one in the Telegraph) have used many of the same generic and linguistic conventions. For instance:

  1. The repetition of the words ‘tragedy’ and ‘tragic’. If the crime really had been committed by intruders, the reports would have used words suggesting anger and condemnation, but when murder is ‘all in the family’, the emotions we are directed to feel are sadness and pity for both/all parties.
  2. The centring of the (male) killer and the near-total erasure of his victims. Dead or alive, he is the main protagonist of the ‘tragedy’, while the victims exist only in relation to him. In the Telegraph’s report, for instance, we are told a fair amount about Francis Matthew’s life history, and we also learn that ‘the couple…were a fixture of Dubai’s social scene’, but nothing is said about Jane Matthew’s history, activities, interests or personality. Like Clodagh Hawe, she is rendered invisible.
  3. The presentation of the killing as a sudden, inexplicable eruption of violence into a previously happy relationship. In this case (as in the Hawe case before it, at least immediately after the murder), the message that Matthew’s act was ‘out of character’ is conveyed by reporting the reactions of others: ‘Friends and associates of Mr Matthew said they were astounded to hear that the genteel editor was under arrest. “He is the biggest teddy bear I know,” said one family friend’. Another acquaintance is quoted describing him as ‘relaxed, calm and laid back’. Though the Telegraph does mention that he has been charged with ‘premeditated murder’, it does not probe the apparent contradiction between this charge and Matthew’s own  claim to have killed his wife accidentally in the heat of the moment.
  4. The inclusion of multiple details which portray the killer as a man of good character and reputation. The Telegraph‘s report is headed by a photo of Francis Matthew shaking hands with the Emir of the UAE; it goes on to extol his educational and professional achievements, and makes several references to his standing in the expatriate community. This, we infer, is what makes the case so ‘tragic’. Not that a woman died following a brutal assault (and who knows how much other abuse in the months and years preceding it), but that a successful man’s life has been ruined by a momentary loss of control.

If I’m putting this kind of reporting in the category of banal sexism, it’s not because I think it’s trivial, but because I think it operates, as Billig says about banal nationalism, more mindlessly than mindfully. I don’t think there’s some media conspiracy to defend homicidal men: it’s more a case of reaching for the familiar formulas (the ‘family tragedy’ frame and the associated clichés—‘out of character’, ‘pillar of the community’, ‘lost their lives’) without ever thinking to interrogate the assumptions that lie behind them. It’s the news-story equivalent of the political discourse which Orwell, in 1946, compared to a ‘prefabricated henhouse’—assembled rapidly and unreflectively from a pile of standard, mass-produced components.

Let me hasten to make clear, though, that this analysis is not meant as an excuse for the journalists who produce these stories. On the contrary, I think this mindless recycling of familiar banalities about domestic violence is an absolute dereliction of their professional duty. Professionals who like to think of themselves as fearless seekers after truth should not be taking the conventional ‘family tragedy’ story at face value, particularly when—thanks to several decades of feminist activism and research—the facts which contradict it are readily accessible. There is ample evidence, for instance, that intimate partner killings like the murder of Jane Matthew are rarely ‘isolated incidents’, and that many men who are violent in private appear ‘calm and laid back’ in public.

Journalists are also professional language-users, and as such should be expected to make considered linguistic choices. Would anyone in any other context talk about ‘spurned husbands’ and ‘tormented dads’? It’s 2017, FFS: why are news reports still full of these archaic, tone-deaf clichés? If you call yourself a writer, you should try engaging your brain and actually thinking about the words you use.

Words may not literally kill, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have consequences. The banal sexism we see in the reporting of domestic homicide cases echoes, and so contributes to perpetuating, some of the same attitudes which are held more actively by men like Alan Hawe—like the idea that women are appendages rather than people who matter in their own right, and the view that violence is an understandable response to the pressures society puts on men. (‘Women. Can’t live with them, can’t let them live if they don’t want to live with you’.) I’m glad that this traditional formula is now attracting more outspoken criticism, and not only from the usual feminist suspects. It’s lazy, it’s sexist and no self-respecting news outlet should give it house-room.

*thanks to Martina Zimmermann


Leading questions

Scene: an ordinary suburban home where A and B are getting ready to leave for work. But A’s car keys have gone missing…

A:  You’ve seen my car keys, haven’t you?

B:  Today? No, I don’t think so.

A:  When did I mention today? Just answer the question: you’ve seen my car keys, haven’t you?

B:  OK, no.

A:  You’re quite certain of that, are you?                          

B:  Well, no, I told you I don’t think—

A:  So you have seen them, then.

B:  I’m not sure…

A:  They were on the sideboard, weren’t they?

B:  I don’t know, I didn’t notice

A:  You’re telling this household you didn’t notice the car keys on the sideboard?

B:  um—I—

A:  I put it to you that you’re lying: the keys were on the sideboard

B:  Well, I suppose they could have been, but—

A:  Were they there or not?

B:  (confused silence)

A:  It’s a simple question, B. The keys were on the sideboard, weren’t they?

(B breaks down in tears, but at that moment C rushes in to say that the keys have been found in A’s jacket pocket, along with a Twix wrapper and 74p in change)

If someone you lived with behaved like A in this (made-up) vignette, you’d probably tell them to f*** off and stop interrogating you. Such overtly hostile questioning is rare in everyday conversation, and if it does happen you’re entitled to protest. But there’s one real-life situation where you can’t just tell the questioner to stop: the cross-examination of a witness in court.

Cross-examination is the bit where a witness is questioned by the lawyer acting for the ‘other side’. If the prosecution in a burglary case calls an eye-witness who says she saw the defendant breaking into someone’s house, the defence will want to test the strength of her evidence, and if possible take issue with her version of events. Maybe she saw someone who wasn’t, in fact, the defendant; maybe she didn’t see anything at all. If her answers suggest that her original account was mistaken, dishonest or confused, that could introduce the ‘reasonable doubt’ which will get the defendant acquitted.

There’s a reason I’ve been thinking about this recently. Earlier this month, Buzzfeed published the text of a letter written by a woman who had been raped while she lay unconscious behind a dumpster. The letter was addressed to Brock Turner, the man who had been convicted of assaulting her. Parts of it were read out in court, and when Turner was sentenced to only six months in prison (a decision which is now the focus of a campaign to recall the judge responsible) its author released the full version for publication.

As many commentators have said, the letter is a powerful document, bearing eloquent witness to the impact of sexual violence on a woman’s life. But I was also struck by what it says about the language of cross-examination. The writer describes the questions put to her by Turner’s lawyer as

…invasive, aggressive, and designed to steer me off course, to contradict myself, my sister, phrased in ways to manipulate my answers.

She goes on to give an example of this manipulative phrasing:

Instead of his attorney saying, Did you notice any abrasions? He said, You didn’t notice any abrasions, right?

‘You didn’t notice any abrasions, right?’ is what lawyers call a ‘directive leading question’: its grammatical form directs the addressee to a particular, preferred answer. My car keys vignette begins with another example: ‘you’ve seen my car keys, haven’t you?’ Grammatically, this is a ‘tag question’, a statement with a question tagged onto the end which invites the addressee to confirm the truth of the statement. The preferred answer to ‘you’ve seen my car keys, haven’t you?’ is ‘yes [I have]’; if the question had been ‘you haven’t seen my car keys, have you?’ the preferred answer would be ‘no [I haven’t]’. ‘You didn’t notice any abrasions, right?’ predicts ‘no [I didn’t]’. Whether the preferred answer is ‘yes’ or ‘no’, the point is that tag questions favour one answer over others. You don’t have to give the preferred answer, but avoiding it takes more effort, and if you repeatedly withhold confirmation you may come across as evasive or obstructive.

There are other, less directive ways to ask for information. If the question were ‘have you seen my car keys?’—grammatically a yes/no question rather than a tag question—it would still be ‘leading’ in the legal sense, because it presupposes that there are some car keys which the addressee either has or hasn’t seen. A non-leading question would be something like ‘what did you see?’ (not very likely in the lost car keys scenario, but a reasonable thing to ask someone who claims they witnessed a crime.) But ‘have you seen my car keys’ and ‘did you notice any abrasions’  are not directive leading questions, because the linguistic form does not imply that one answer is preferable to the other.

Last year, the forensic psychologist Jacqueline Wheatcroft called for directive leading questions like ‘you’ve seen my car keys, haven’t you?’ to be banned in court proceedings.  She expressed particular concern about their use in rape and sexual assault trials. These cases—if they get to court at all—often turn on which of two competing accounts the jury believes. In that situation the main prosecution witness will be the complainant, and it’s likely that the defence’s cross-examination will focus on trying to discredit her account. Directive leading questions are commonly employed for that purpose, and this can make testifying in court even more traumatic for victims.

As an example Wheatcroft cites the case of Frances Andrade, who committed suicide in 2013 after giving evidence against her former teacher Michael Brewer at his trial in Manchester (he was subsequently found guilty of indecently assaulting her, and sentenced to six years in prison). One of the questions put to Ms Andrade during cross-examination was: ‘utter fantasy, is it not?’ She was repeatedly presented as a liar and a fantasist, an experience which she described to several people as feeling like another assault.

The standard response to this kind of concern is that yes, trials can be horrible for victims, but people accused of serious crimes are entitled to a defence: robust questioning is necessary to test the strength of the case against them. So it’s interesting that Jacqueline Wheatcroft’s argument against directive leading questions isn’t just about their negative effect on the victim. Her research suggests that directive leading questions can undermine the larger aim of delivering justice, because they make it more likely that people will give factually inaccurate answers.

Wheatcroft and her colleague Sarah Wood conducted a study in which 80 subjects watched a four-minute video clip, and then answered a series of questions (orally, to simulate courtroom conditions) about the events they had seen in the video (it showed a reconstruction of a real crime, where a man followed a young woman home and then entered her house). All the questions were of the ‘leading’ type, and required a simple yes or no answer, but the subjects were split into two groups, with one group responding to non-directive questions like ‘was the street called Willow Street?’ while the other half were asked directive leading questions like ‘the street was called Willow Street, wasn’t it?’

The study found that the non-directive questions elicited a higher percentage of accurate answers. Although the experimental setting was presumably less stressful than an actual cross-examination in court, the subjects were still susceptible to the pressure a directive question exerts to accept its embedded presuppositions, even if they misrepresent reality.

Some directive questions are especially confusing because they embed more than one potentially disputable presupposition. An example in my ‘car keys’ drama is ‘so, you’re telling this household you didn’t notice the car keys on the sideboard?’ This (a) presupposes that the car keys were on the sideboard (rather than somewhere else) and (b) asserts that the addressee, B, must have noticed them. While B debates which of these propositions to challenge, she becomes noticeably hesitant, allowing A to jump in with an interpretation of her hesitancy as a sign that she isn’t being honest.

Most people don’t realise that the form of a question can affect their ability to give an accurate answer. Wheatcroft and Wood asked their research subjects to rate their confidence in each answer they gave on a scale from ‘not at all confident’ to ‘absolutely certain’. On this measure there was very little difference between the non-directive and directive questions, although objectively the directive questions elicited significantly more inaccurate answers.

One way to address this issue is through witness preparation: explaining to witnesses before a trial what kinds of questions they are likely to face, providing concrete examples and possibly using role-play to give a witness practice in responding. Wheatcroft and Wood’s study tested the usefulness of a number of witness preparation strategies. They split both their participant-groups into four subgroups: one was a control group, receiving no special preparation, while the others were prepared in different degrees of detail. One group was warned in general terms that the experimenters might use leading questions, another was presented with examples of what to look out for, and a third was told they could ask for questions to be repeated or rephrased.

Though one of these strategies (giving examples) appeared to work better than the others, its effect was still quite limited: all groups remained more likely to give factually wrong answers if the form of a question was directive. As the researchers point out, that isn’t necessarily an argument against witness preparation, which may help witnesses in other ways (by making them feel less anxious, for example). But preparation does not solve the problem of inaccurate testimony. As the researchers sum up their conclusions:

Where directive leading questions are incorporated into cross-examination procedure… a witness’s overall accuracy will be reduced regardless of the type of preparation the witness receives.

This study challenges the belief that ‘robust’ questioning is justified by the need to test the evidence rigorously. There’s nothing rigorous about questioning people in a way that confuses them and prompts them to make mistakes. But if we’re interested in the specific issues that arise in sexual assault trials, it seems clear that we can’t just focus on the linguistic form of the questions put to complainants. Challenging the assumptions of a particular question isn’t easy; but what’s even harder is challenging the more general assumption that women are ‘liars and fantasists’.

It’s because of that general assumption that complainants are routinely faced with questions like the one put to Frances Andrade—‘utter fantasy, is it not?’ Rephrasing that as a non-directive question (like ‘is this a fantasy?’) would make very little difference. However it’s formulated, it’s not in any meaningful sense a test of the witness’s honesty and reliability. It’s a rhetorical device for suggesting to the jury that the witness is lying, and it exploits the widespread belief that false accusations of rape are more common than rape itself.

The letter to Brock Turner includes a long list of the questions the writer was asked by Turner’s lawyer:

How old are you? How much do you weigh? What did you eat that day? Well what did you have for dinner? Who made dinner? Did you drink with dinner? No, not even water? When did you drink? How much did you drink? What container did you drink out of? Who gave you the drink? How much do you usually drink? Who dropped you off at this party? At what time? But where exactly? What were you wearing? Why were you going to this party? What’ d you do when you got there? Are you sure you did that? But what time did you do that? What does this text mean? Who were you texting? When did you urinate? Where did you urinate? With whom did you urinate outside? Was your phone on silent when your sister called? Do you remember silencing it? Really because on page 53 I’d like to point out that you said it was set to ring. Did you drink in college? You said you were a party animal? How many times did you black out? Did you party at frats? Are you serious with your boyfriend? Are you sexually active with him? When did you start dating? Would you ever cheat? Do you have a history of cheating? What do you mean when you said you wanted to reward him? Do you remember what time you woke up? Were you wearing your cardigan? What color was your cardigan?

Grammatically speaking, these questions are a mixed bunch, and none of them are unequivocally directive. But that doesn’t mean they’re unproblematic. As the letter-writer herself commented, the lawyer’s goal in asking them was to discredit her by any means necessary:

I was pummeled with narrowed, pointed questions that dissected my personal life, love life, past life, family life, inane questions, accumulating trivial details to try and find an excuse for this guy who had me half naked before even bothering to ask for my name.

What motivates defence lawyers to ask questions like these is their understanding that we as a society are inclined to make excuses for men like Brock Turner, and conversely to blame women for provoking or deserving what is done to them. If that were not the case, questions like ‘how much do you usually drink’ and ‘are you sexually active’ (let alone ‘when did you urinate’ and ‘what color was your cardigan’) would serve no purpose.

So, while I support Jacqueline Wheatcroft’s call to ban questions whose form confuses witnesses and prompts inaccurate answers, I also support the JURIES campaign, which calls for jurors in sexual violence cases to be briefed with factual information designed to counter the myths and stereotypes we’ve all been fed throughout our lives. Our justice system is adversarial; but if its aim is to deliver justice, cases must be won by marshalling evidence, not exploiting prejudice.

Passive aggressive

In 2014, someone set up a Twitter account called ‘Name the Agent’ as part of a feminist campaign challenging the way the media reported violence against women. Specifically, the campaign criticized the use of the passive voice in news headlines like ‘Woman raped while walking her dog’. This headline fails to mention that a man committed the crime. It presents rape either as something that ‘just happens’ to women, or as something for which women are indirectly responsible–as if the woman was raped because she was walking her dog, and not because a man decided to rape her. The campaign called on the media to abandon the passive in favour of active-voice headlines like ‘Man rapes woman dog-walker’.

Complaints about the passive have a long history. Advice to avoid it has been around for the best part of a century: I imagine many people reading this were taught at school that it was ‘bad style’. Originally the reasons for this judgment had nothing to do with politics: commentators in the 1930s said that active sentences were ‘strong’ while passive sentences were ‘weak’. The connection with politics was made by George Orwell, whose 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language‘ included ‘never use the passive where you can use the active’ on a list of rules for combatting the politically-motivated abuse of language. This helped to popularize the now-common idea that the passive isn’t just bad style, it’s a tool used by the powerful to conceal unpalatable truths and manipulate public opinion.

The feminist argument that passives are used to conceal men’s responsibility for violence against women belongs to this post-Orwellian tradition. But in this post I’m going to try to explain why I don’t think the argument is convincing–why it’s really not as simple as ‘active good, passive bad’.

Before I go on, let’s just run through some grammatical basics.

Below is a simple active sentence. It puts the agent—the doer of an action—in the grammatical subject position, which in English normally means before the verb.

A man attacked a woman

And here’s the passive voice equivalent:

A woman was attacked by a man

In the passive version the subject is ‘a woman’, the person affected by the action, while the agent, ‘a man’, has been relegated to a ‘by’ phrase after the verb. This ‘by’ phrase is optional. You can remove it and still end up with a grammatical sentence, like this:

A woman was attacked

This is a passive sentence with agent deletion: the attacker has disappeared, leaving the sentence to focus entirely on the woman and what happened to her. Agentless passives are common in news reports and headlines: ‘Woman raped while walking her dog’ is an example.

Agentless passives are also common in legal proceedings, and in that context the feminist argument has some force. Research has shown that men who are accused of sexual violence, and the lawyers who represent those men, very often make strategic use of what the linguist Susan Ehrlich calls ‘the grammar of non-agency’, including agentless passives. In her book Representing Rape,  Ehrlich analyses a sexual assault trial in which the defence lawyer asks his client questions like

‘I take it the sweater was removed?’

It’s not hard to see what the lawyer hopes to achieve by choosing an agentless construction that doesn’t specify who removed the sweater. If the court thinks the complainant took off her own clothes, that will support–or at least, not contradict–the defence’s argument that she consented to sex.

As Ehrlich says, it’s only to be expected that defendants and their lawyers will use this strategy. It’s more surprising, and perhaps more worrying, that the same tendency to downplay men’s agency has been observed in the language used by judges. When the researcher Linda Coates and her colleagues analysed the language used in judgments on sexual assault cases in Western Canada, they found many examples of judges using agentless passives like this:

There was advantage taken of a situation that presented itself.

This statement was made in the judgment on a case where a ten year-old girl had been sexually assaulted by a stranger in her home. The ‘situation’, in other words, was the presence of a child in her own bedroom, and it did not magically ‘present itself’, it was engineered by the defendant. A jury had found the defendant guilty, but the judge chose to minimize the seriousness of his offence by describing it in a way that implied he had no agency at all–as if he merely reacted, as anyone might, to the circumstances in which he (inexplicably) found himself.

The judge’s statement is an egregious example of ‘the grammar of non-agency’. But is the use of the passive the main problem here? I think we can see it isn’t if we recast the sentence in the active voice:

The defendant/Mr X took advantage of a situation that presented itself.

This reformulation names the agent, but it doesn’t solve the problem. The vague wording still glosses over what the defendant actually did, and the sentence still presents him as simply reacting to a situation that was not of his own making.

Naming the agent is not the same thing as holding him responsible for his actions. Conversely, not naming the agent doesn’t have to mean concealing or denying his actions.

We can see this if we go back to the newspaper headline ‘Woman raped while walking her dog’, which was criticized for failing to mention the key fact that the crime was committed by a man. It’s true that the headline doesn’t explicitly describe the perpetrator as a man. But it’s not true that the effect is to obscure his maleness from the reader. The word raped, which does appear in the headline, cues the reader to activate what psychologists call a ‘schema’—a sort of mental template for the kind of event the word is applied to. Part of that schema is the information that rapists are prototypically male. For many English-speakers rapists are male by definition, because the meaning of the word rape in their mental dictionary includes the idea of penetration with a penis. But even if they define the word more broadly, their schema will still incorporate the knowledge that rapists are almost always men. If the suspect in a rape case were female, you can be sure the report would say so, precisely because it would be so unusual.

In practice, therefore, the agent-naming headline ‘man rapes woman dog-walker’ communicates no more information than ‘woman raped while walking her dog’. The difference is only that the first version mentions the attacker’s sex explicitly while the second relies on the reader to infer it.

But if the two versions communicate the same information, why do headline writers so often favour the passive? If that’s not about excusing men and/or blaming women, what is it about?

The answer is, it’s about focus. When you choose between the active and the passive, you’re also choosing what to put in the grammatical subject position. In crude terms, you’re deciding what the sentence is about. And you don’t always want it to be about the agent. For instance, if a high-profile public figure is assassinated, the breaking news headline is more likely to be ‘President shot’ than ‘Gunman shoots president’. The story isn’t about the shooter: what makes it news is the identity of the victim.

In stories like ‘Woman raped while walking her dog’, the main news is simply that a rape has been committed. The report can’t say much about either the attacker or the victim: his identity is not yet known, while hers is legally protected. (That’s probably why the writer added the dog-walking detail—not to imply that the victim put herself at risk, but to enable readers to relate to her as an ordinary person engaged in an everyday activity.) In some circumstances the headline-writer might choose to focus on the attacker–for instance, if he’d been caught and arrested, or if the report concerned the latest attack by a serial offender. But if the attacker is just an unidentified, generic ‘man’, there’s no compelling reason to focus on him. It isn’t news to anyone that rape is committed by men.

So, I don’t think there’s a media conspiracy to deny men’s responsibility for violence by using passive-voice headlines. But as I’ve already pointed out, what actually gets communicated doesn’t depend exclusively on the intentions of the speaker or writer. It also depends on the inferences made by hearers or readers. In theory, a writer’s linguistic choices could affect readers’ interpretations even if that wasn’t the writer’s intention. Recognizing that possibility, a number of researchers have run experiments to investigate whether the grammatical framing of a report makes any difference to readers’ judgments of the case.

The basic procedure involves dividing a sample of research subjects into two groups, presenting one group with an account of sexual violence framed in the active and the other with a matched account in the passive, and then asking subjects to rate (a) the perpetrator’s degree of responsibility, (b) the victim’s degree of responsibility and (c) the degree of harm to the victim. Subjects may also be asked to complete a questionnaire about their attitudes to sexual violence, so researchers can see how their judgments relate to their pre-existing beliefs.

I’ll start with what you might call the good news. These studies suggest that we’re not dealing with a form of Orwellian thought control: readers who don’t already subscribe to rape myths are not susceptible to the influence of language. Their judgments are the same regardless of which report they’ve read. The grammar of a report only makes a difference to the judgments of people who have high RMA scores (RMA stands for ‘rape myth acceptance’. And before you ask, yes, gender does play a role here: men on average have higher RMA scores than women, so it’s mostly men who are susceptible.)

The next question is how grammar affects the perceptions of those subjects who are influenced by it. The answer isn’t clear cut: different studies have found different effects. The first group of researchers to do the experiment found what they’d predicted: subjects who read a passive-voice report judged perpetrators less responsible than those who read the active-voice version. But later studies found the opposite: subjects who were influenced by grammar judged perpetrators more responsible after reading a report in the passive.

This second pattern doesn’t fit with the theory that the passive downplays men’s agency and shields them from blame. To explain why it’s been found in some studies, we need to consider what else you can do with passive sentences.

One researcher who has thought about this is Tamar Holoshitz. She conducted one of the experiments which found that passive reports prompted higher ratings of perpetrator responsibility; she also analysed the language used by prosecutors in domestic violence cases, where she noticed that they often referred to the same act or event using both active and passive sentences. For instance:

The defendant gave her a single blow to the left eye

She was admitted [to hospital] after being hit in the eye, suffering from trauma and an orbital fracture

These two sentences are designed to do different things. The first directs attention to the perpetrator and describes what he did. The second directs attention to the victim and describes the consequences of the assault for her. The active sentence names the agent; the passive sentence names the harm.

Holoshitz argues that prosecutors use both these strategies to maximize their chances of getting a conviction. The first is necessary (to convict a defendant you have to show that he committed the crime he is on trial for), but prosecutors know that on its own it may not be sufficient. On any jury there are likely to be people who think violence against women is acceptable under some conditions (if it was ‘just a slap’, if she was ‘asking for it’, if he just lost control and lashed out without really meaning to, etc.). If you want jurors who think like this to return a guilty verdict, you need to address their belief that some degree of force is acceptable. Naming the agent doesn’t do that (they’re not disputing the claim that he punched her), but naming the harm–presenting an account that emphasizes the effect of his violence on the victim–gives you some chance of blocking the standard excuses (‘this wasn’t just a slap. He put her in hospital. You don’t break someone’s bones without meaning to hurt them’). Holoshitz thinks it’s this emphasis on harm that her experimental subjects were responding to when they attributed more responsibility to perpetrators after reading reports in the passive.

What all this boils down to is that passives can serve more than one purpose. The prosecutors in Holoshitz’s study used the passive strategically to highlight the effects of domestic violence on women; the defence lawyers in Susan Ehrlich’s research used it strategically to downplay the agency of their clients. They used the same grammatical construction, but in different ways to suit their different aims.

What matters for feminist purposes is the aims: we can criticize particular uses of the passive without suggesting it should never be used at all. If we do that, we won’t just catch the cases where it works against the interests of women, we’ll also catch the cases where it can work in women’s favour. Language is a resource; let’s not make it into a straitjacket.

Thanks to Tamar Holoshitz for allowing me to make use of her unpublished thesis ‘More than Words: Passive Voice Use in Courtroom Depictions of Violence Against Women’ (Harvard University, 2010).

Lost without translation

In Melbourne in 2007, Marzieh Rahimi, a 33-year Dari-speaking woman who had come to Australia as a refugee from Afghanistan, was killed by her husband Soltan Azizi. He had a history of violence towards her, and before her death she had made two calls to the emergency services. But her English was very limited, and the operator could not understand her. In the end she hung up. No attempt was made to call her back, and no assistance was dispatched.

Being unable to get help in an emergency was not the only problem Marzieh Rahimi had faced because of her lack of proficiency in English. Although she had talked to social services through an interpreter, her sister, who had spoken to her by phone from the USA, later testified that Marzieh had felt unsupported. The couple lived in an area where there were few other Dari speakers, so being unable to speak English left her isolated, with no friends or neighbours she could turn to.

At Soltan Azizi’s trial, the judge criticized the emergency services, calling the failure to prevent Marzieh Rahimi’s death ‘an indictment of our society’. But many people disagreed: if she expected help, they said, she should have made the effort to learn English.

As the linguist and human rights advocate Ingrid Piller commented,  language is ‘the last bastion of “legitimate” victim blaming’. People who would never suggest that the victim of a hate crime should have changed their religion or lightened their skin find it perfectly reasonable to say that they should have learnt the language. And in this case the victim-blaming was doubly unjust. Like the domestic violence that killed her, Marzieh Rahimi’s linguistic problems were a product of structural sexual inequality.

One aspect of this inequality is to do with access to second language learning. It is not a coincidence that Soltan Azizi had attended English classes, whereas Marzieh Rahimi had not. Women who enter a country as dependents do not always get the same opportunities as men who are expected to join the workforce. Even if classes are in theory available, women may in practice be unable to attend them because they do not have childcare, or transport, or money.

Learning a new language as an adult is not as easy as many English monolinguals think. It’s been calculated that the average adult needs over 400 hours of instruction to achieve a reasonable level of proficiency, and more than that if the language is ‘difficult’, e.g. written in a different script from the one the learner already knows. These figures assume a learner who is educated and literate: it’s harder for adults with low levels of literacy. This disadvantages refugees whose education has been limited by extreme poverty and/or disrupted by conflict. And it particularly affects women, because where education is a scarce resource, girls are likely to get even less than boys.

Marzieh Rahimi was economically dependent, socially isolated and burdened with domestic responsibilities. She also had a controlling and violent husband who would hardly have encouraged her to seek out language-learning opportunities. Saying that she ‘should have made the effort’ to master English glosses over all the structural factors that prevented her from doing so.

This punitive attitude is increasingly common, and not only in Australia. In the UK, where I live, it is both entrenched in public opinion and increasingly enshrined in government policy.

The crackdown on non-English speakers began under Labour in 2005 with the introduction of a test for UK citizenship that had to be taken in ‘a recognized British language’ (in practice English, though Welsh and Gaelic are also permitted). This has advantaged applicants from affluent majority English-speaking countries like the US, Canada and Australia, while disadvantaging those from poor, non-English speaking countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. Successive governments have also imposed English language requirements for non-EU migrants who don’t want to become citizens, but simply want to work or study in Britain, or to join a spouse here. In 2014 the government announced new restrictions on benefit claimants with limited skills in English.

During the same period, translation and interpreting services have been cut repeatedly, not only to save money but also for ideological reasons. Since 2006 both the main political parties have openly declared their opposition to multilingual service provision. They claim that it removes the incentive to learn English, and that this leads to a lack of integration and ‘social cohesion’.

This rhetoric, which implies that Britain is awash with people who cannot speak the majority language, is at odds with the evidence compiled by the government’s own statisticians. The 2011 census showed that in fact there are very few people living in the UK who don’t speak English: they make up around 0.3% of the population, which is a very low figure for a country with high rates of immigration.

It is also untrue that this small minority of non-English speakers are people who simply refuse to make the effort. The women’s charity Eaves has just released a report on the experiences of women who came to the UK on spousal visas: their research found that women who needed to improve their English were keen to do so (not least because they were also keen to find work). The problem they faced was inadequate provision. The classes that were free or affordable were also full, with waiting times that in some cases were measured in years. Many did not offer childcare, without which they were useless to a lot of the women who needed them.

The UK’s increasingly draconian policies are presented as being about ‘integration’, but research like Eaves’s suggests that little is being done to help newcomers integrate, linguistically or otherwise. The real agenda has more to do with trying to control migrant numbers by being as unwelcoming as possible. It’s not hard to see that this is racist and xenophobic, but we also need to recognize that it is sexist: the way it works in practice reinforces gender inequality, keeping women dependent on men and making them more vulnerable to violence and exploitation.

It is shocking to discover, for instance, that the immigration service itself does not routinely provide interpreters when dealing with non-English speaking women in situations of crisis, such as those who have left violent men while their immigration status is still precarious and need urgent assistance to avoid destitution. Asylum seekers held in detention centres may be forced to rely on other detainees to interpret for them, or to relay their stories of persecution and torture through their own children.

Women’s organizations are well aware of the importance of multilingual services, but they are struggling to provide them because of insufficient funding. Some of the most experienced and effective providers are specialist services set up to meet the linguistic and cultural needs of Black and minority ethnic women; but they have often had to fight to survive. In 2008 Ealing Council threatened Southall Black Sisters with closure, claiming that their specialist provision for BME women was detrimental to social cohesion (an argument SBS successfully challenged in court). Last year, Latin American Women’s Aid almost had to close its London refuge after Islington Council withdrew its annual grant, apparently on the grounds that since Islington residents mostly aren’t from Latin America, the service did not merit council support.

Meanwhile, non-specialist local services are also dealing with linguistically diverse populations, but they are expected to manage with a level of funding that does not cover the cost of interpreters or bilingual workers. Refuges are being forced to turn women away because they cannot meet their linguistic needs. As Kimberle Crenshaw pointed out in her 1991 article ‘Mapping the Margins’, this is an unacceptable position for refuges to be in, since it means they are unable to meet their primary goal of providing a place of safety.

This is part of the general problem of women’s services being starved of funds, but it is also connected to the point made by Ingrid Piller, that language discrimination is often seen as legitimate where other kinds are not. Feminists need to be vocal in opposing this. Denying women services because of the languages they do or don’t speak is treating them unequally, and in some cases denying them basic rights. Politicians should not be able to get away with arguing that multilingual service-provision ‘ghettoizes’ non-English speakers: anyone who pays attention to the experiences of women will know that the opposite is true.

As well as defending multilingual services, we should support campaigns for women, regardless of visa and employment status, to have meaningful access to English language teaching. That requires not only more provision overall, so that people who cannot pay don’t have to wait years to take a class, but also more provision that addresses the specific needs of women—especially their need for childcare.

Last but not least, we should challenge prejudice against non-English speakers, or those who speak the language imperfectly, wherever we encounter it. Some of the women interviewed for the Eaves report mentioned negative attitudes to other languages as an obstacle to integration: they were wary of interacting with British people in case their imperfect English provoked a hostile response. Low-level linguistic intolerance contributes to the isolation of non-English speakers, and helps to create a climate in which more serious abuses can be condoned.

Marzieh Rahimi’s story shows where this can lead. Her treatment wasn’t just a failure of communication, it was a failure of empathy and basic humanity. Not speaking English made her Other: she ‘hadn’t made the effort’, so it was somehow acceptable to make none for her. It’s not enough that her killer was brought to justice. The system which failed her, and which continues to fail women like her, must also be held to account.

In this post I have drawn on information from several UK women’s organizations, including Eaves, Imkaan, LAWA, nia, Southall Black Sisters and Women’s Aid. (You can use the links if you want to donate to support their work.) For pointing me to some of these sources and for answering my questions I am grateful to Liz Kelly, Janet McDermott, Yasmin Rehman, Sumanta Roy and Karen Ingala Smith. The views expressed are my own.