Words Have Meanings, Part 1,972,437

What do to about violence? Violence against women, against children, against men is everywhere—every culture, every income level, and every neighborhood, not to mention most television shows that aspire to the category of drama instead of comedy, but sometimes even the comedies.

Ed Schipul raised the question specifically about how we should react to an increase in depictions of violence against women on television, and the thoughtful Houston Chronicle headline writers provided me with a jumping-off point for answering that question.

Friday night, a man was stabbed to death outside a nightclub in Montrose. Here’s a description of the brutality involved:

The suspect proceeded to stab [the victim] several more times, including wounds to the chest, abdomen, forearm, left side and hand, authorities said.

As they always say in the crime dramas on television when they encounter multiple stab wounds, this sounds personal. It at least means that the two men, victim and assailant, were face to face while one horribly and violently took the other’s life.

What troubles me about the article is not the description of the crime, but the headline:

‘Brutal’ killing could be crime of passion

Quick grammar lesson: use quotation marks only to indicate a direct quote, or to indicate that a word is being used ironically. Never use them for emphasis.

Are we to assume that this multiple stabbing that caused a man to die is ‘brutal’ instead of brutal because it was a crime of passion? What’s passionate about digging a knife repeatedly into someone else’s body as they struggle to run away?

Here, by the way, is the proper usage of quotation marks:

“It was brutal,” said Houston homicide Sgt. W. Meeler.

No irony there. Just the facts.

Authorities, who are still investigating the motive, said the killing could possibly be a crime of passion. Police have determined that it wasn’t a robbery or hate crime.

Here’s my point. Words have meaning. We have good words to describe a stabbing when the motive is taking money (robbery), or the motive is hate because of race, religion, sexual orientation, or some other status (hate crime), but when the motive is possible intimate partner violence, or violence that has arisen out of a personal relationship, or violence that simply doesn’t have another easily explainable motive, the best we can come up with is crime of passion?

Passion has nothing to do with it. Nor does love, friendship, or sex.

Granted, we don’t know, at this point, the relationship between the victim and perpetrator. Crime of passion is a horribly imprecise term, in part because we are culturally conditioned to read something into it.

Historically, you heard the phrase when someone described a husband coming home to find his wife with the milk man, flying into a sudden rage, and killing both her and the milk man before he had time to think. Crime of passion are assumed to be spur-of-the-moment, and, important from a legal defense perspective, not premeditated.

Crimes of passion are also read as having somehow been provoked by the behavior of the victim. The husband never would have pulled out that shotgun if the wife hadn’t provoked him. It wasn’t his fault, he wasn’t in control, his emotions took over.

If you think I’m reading too much into the phrase crime of passion, note that another stabbing, equally brutal and tragic, happened earlier this week in Houston. A woman was stabbed in her home, and died. As with the murder in Montrose, witnesses on the scene when the police arrived were able to give a description of the suspect who had fled. As the story came out, we learned that a son with severe mental health issues had stabbed his mother.

So, robbery wasn’t a motive, and neither was the mother’s membership in a legally protected class (i.e., not a hate crime). She was killed, sadly, by someone with whom she had a relationship, and the killing was most likely a spur-of-the-moment decision and not premeditated.

Yet we’re not calling that tragic situation a crime of passion. We know it was not, even though it contains the same elements. Yet with the murder of a man on the steps of a nightclub in Montrose, the police are at a point in their investigation when they can rule out some motives and suggest one that prompts the media to use the term crime of passion.

To a certain extent, the newspaper has used this term because papers have editors, and the economical phrase crime of passion paints a vivid picture with just 14 letters.

But a headline writer assumed something about a crime described that way that made him or her turn a brutal murder into a ‘brutal’ one.

So what’s the lesson here? Fair warning, it is a tedious and exhausting one.

A certain attitude about sexual violence is ingrained more deeply in our culture than we might like to admit. If we explain the use of the term crime of passion here as simply shorthand, we are missing a chance to think critically and intentionally about how we frame and talk about sexual violence.

[NB, I keep saying sexual violence, but I don’t want to imply that I know anything about this particular stabbing in Montrose. I’m merely using the fact that the phrase crime of passion gets used to describe it as a jumping-off point.]

Back to the lesson: one step each of us can take to changing cultural attitudes about sexual violence is understanding, and often changing, the language we use. Don’t use the phrase crime of passion. Don’t teach it to your children, and explain to them when the moment is sufficiently teachable that violence is violence is violence, and the person at fault is the perpetrator, not the victim.

Think, too, about your gut reaction to words like domestic violence or date rape. Does putting date or domestic at the front cause you to take the inherent crime less seriously, or prompt you to assign some culpability to the victim? How will you teach your children about those crimes?

And heaven help the headline copy writer. All that pressure to write a short, descriptive, catchy phrase for thousands of articles each week. It is no wonder that headline writers rely on clichés, stock phrases, and rhetorical flourishes. I certainly agonize over how to be clever when titling blog posts. The medium really shapes the message when it comes to headlines, so it is worth reminding ourselves that words have meanings, so we need to be sure we are really saying what we think we are saying before we hit publish.

This entry was posted in feminists & feminism, grammar police, time for action and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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