The Importance of Using Accountable Language
by Phyllis B. Frank and Barry Goldstein
This article was conceived because of the frequency with which leaders of our movement and presenters at conferences use unaccountable language in our presentations and proposals, even as they deeply care about ending men’s violence against women and have devoted their lives to helping women partnered with abusive men.
Like all tools of oppression, unaccountable language is conditioned into our psyches, taught and learned as appropriate vocabulary and in socially acceptable sentence structure. Thus, unaccountable language is part of everyday parlance of people acting in complete good faith in trying to end men’s violence against women. We know this is true because as long as we have trained to avoid unaccountable language, we still sometimes make this error, as well. The movement to end domestic violence has not yet made the use of accountable language a priority. We hope this article will encourage all of us in the movement to do so. This is one program we can afford even in tight economic times.
Defining unaccountable language
Unaccountable language refers to the powerful messages embedded in all forms of speech and media that have all of us lapse into sentence structure that obscures perpetrators, minimizes their abuse, and supports blaming victims. One common example is the phrase “an abusive relationship.” The relationship did not hit the woman, but rather it was the abuser, typically a man who is husband or intimate partner, who was abusive. Such statements make the person who committed the offense, invisible. More specifically it is the use of passive language that results in making the perpetrator invisible. For example, a phrase like a woman was raped should be replaced by, “A man raped a woman.” The rape did not just happen, but rather the rapist committed a brutal act. The idea is to focus attention on the person responsible. Accountably speaking we might say a woman was in a relationship with an abuser or he is abusive to his intimate partner. Another example is exposed by the question, “How many women will be raped or assaulted in this year?” Do we ever hear, “How many men will rape or assault this year?”
Other examples of the language of accountability
Once, when discussing accountable language during a staff training, we looked up on the wall to see a bumper sticker that said, “Every 15 seconds a woman is assaulted.” Our objection at the time was not with the accuracy of the information but that the statement failed to focus on the cause of these assaults. “Every 15 seconds a man assaults a woman!” would be an accountable description.
During a dinner conversation, Barry, and his partner, Sharon, were discussing a series of disastrous calamities in their home caused by the builder who seemed to have deliberately sabotaged their house. After hearing about one emergency repair after another, Phyllis said it was the first time she actually understood the true meaning of an “abusive home“, since too often the phrase “abusive home” is misused to invisiblize a man who repeatedly abuses his partner in their home.
The police and media often refer to incidents in which a man brutalizes his wife or girl friend as a “domestic dispute.” This describes a man’s criminal assault as if it were some kind of mutual problem, even-sided engagement, or tame dispute, rather than an act of brutality. When a mugger assaults and robs a cab driver, it is not described as a “fare dispute.”
Unaccountable language hides responsibility
The use of accountable language is not a technicality or merely a play on words, but rather an issue with profound social consequences. The systemic use of unaccountable language minimizes men’s abuse of women, fails to take his abuse seriously, and hides his responsibility for his actions. If we say “a woman was hurt” it seems like it just happened, as if on its own accord, or by accident, and there is nothing to be done about it. If instead we refer to the man who is hurting the woman, this requires assigning responsibility and taking action to stop him from hurting her again and provide consequences for the harm he caused.
Domestic violence is comprised of a wide range of tactics used by men to maintain power and to control their intimate partners The tactics are part of a pattern of coercive actions designed to maintain, what he believes (consciously or not), are his male privileges, to control his significant other. Historically, men were assigned, by social and legal norms, control over wives and families. Today, even though that is no longer legally, and for so many, morally, the case, an “abusive relationship” or “domestic dispute” makes it seem like a communications or relationship problem between the parties. It suggests counseling or therapy as a remedy instead of consequences to hold abusers accountable for abusive, controlling, and/or violent tactics.
Social Consequences of unaccountable language
As a society our constant use of unaccountable language gives still another advantage to abusers. Unaccountable language, embedded in all dominant institutions, including the judicial system, leads police, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and judges in domestic violence custody cases to confidently assume that both parties share equal blame for not getting along. They often tell the parties they are equally responsible for the problems in the relationship and they must start to cooperate, get therapy, or anger management classes. When a mother attempts to protect her children or limit contact with an abusive father, she is routinely blamed for not getting along rather than recognized for what is a normal reaction to a partner’s abuse.
If we are going to end or at least reduce the use of unaccountable language in this society, those of us working in the battered women’s movement must take the lead and must set an example to use accountable language. Politicians often use phrases like “mistakes were made” Instead of saying, “I made a mistake.” We want society to be clear that men ,who abuse and mistreat the women they are partnered with, are responsible for their actions. We are asking presenters and others working to end domestic violence to join us in striving to use accountable language.