27-May-20 Words, Ideas, Harm

Photo by Jessica Lewis from Pexels

In my last post (Crimmigration 20-May-2020), I said that “a simple stroke of the bureaucratic pen” can create significant suffering. This suffering may ripple through lives and communities for some time, much of it undocumented.

In my own research (working also with colleagues at the Centre for Gender and Violence Research), I record and seek to make known the stories of individuals who have experienced harm, through publications and through speaking to practitioners and policy-makers. Much of my research has been focused on the impact of words and specifically how issues are represented. At the end of last year, for example, and reflecting on data collected from over 500 individuals involved in selling sex, I published an article asking whether it was time that policy-makers dropped the term ‘prostitution’ and found better words to recognise the shifting spectrum of entrepreneurship, work, survival and exploitation that constitute the sex industry. Similarly, in an article on female genital mutilation with colleagues here at Bristol and at University of Roehampton, we drew on the voices of FGM survivors to think critically about the use of the word ‘mutilation’, the perception that FGM is a ‘cultural practice’ and how far it fits better under the category of ‘child abuse’, for example.

“Well”, you might say, “people are experiencing trauma, harm or violence and you are fretting about what we name it? That’s hardly going to change the world.”

Except I believe that words matter. First, words are the building blocks for ideas or ‘discourses’ – the meanings that we attribute and the stories that we tell. They can convey or indeed misrepresent the visceral reality of harm. Second, words can themselves be harmful through misrepresentation, malevolence, or their absence. And finally, how we represent and understand something informs how we respond to it. For example, the Macpherson Report into the police handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder enquiry did not find a ‘few bad apples’ with racist opinions as was originally suggested – it found that the Metropolitan Police itself was institutionally racist. This meant that sacking or suspending officers was not enough: whole organisation change was required.

I was reminded of the power of words and ideas when I read an article on the BBC website this morning entitled Coronavirus: the human cost of virus misinformation. The piece details examples from around the world where individuals have ingested substances they believed to be curative, such as hydroxychloroquine, alcohol or disinfectant, some to lethal effect. In other cases, the belief that COVID-19 was a hoax or a conspiracy led individuals to ignore safety advice and put themselves and others at risk. Misinformation has spread, alongside the real epidemic, through the internet, broadcast media and politicians.

Imprecision in our use of words can also be harmful. Many among the UK public are trying to interpret what the new UK lockdown easing message ‘stay alert’ means in practical terms. The Police Federation for England Wales called for further guidance on the implications for enforcement as this new grey zone may strain the principle of policing by consent.

The English novelist Angela Carter said that “Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.” In the tales we tell about crime and harm, our pens can illuminate, empower and bring material change, if we handle them with care.

© Natasha Mulvihill and Criminology Tales, 2020. 

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