Monday, November 29, 2010

"Rape": a word not to be used casually

I recently read a story in the LaCrosse Tribune about the use of the word “rape” to describe situations that have nothing to do with sexual assault. The article itself was very even-handed and made no accusations against people who use the word “rape” inappropriately. It didn’t claim that people who use this word casually are intentionally trying to belittle victims of sexual assault or are otherwise sexist. It certainly didn’t call for fining or imprisoning people who use the word to refer to situations other than an actual rape.

Yet, that is the reaction some people had to this article. The article was an effort to convince people to make a free choice to use more accurate and polite language in their conversations. It was very similar to recent efforts to encourage people not to use the word “retarded.” However, many commenters saw it differently. One cried, “More censorship from the oversensitive liberal masses.” Another even claimed to sympathize with victims of rape or other sex crimes, saying, “There are too many people I know who've been victims of sexual crimes for me to make light of what's a very serious issue. That being said, we as a society cannot allow this type of politically correct censorship.”

If the article had argued that people who use the word “rape” inappropriately should be subject to criminal penalties, I would wholeheartedly agree with the above commenters. But the article didn’t say that. It was merely a reasoned argument about why people shouldn’t use the word to describe things that don’t have anything to do with sexual assault. In fact, by the (incorrect) logic of these commenters, they are themselves “censoring” the writer of the article.

In this country we are fortunate enough to have the right to say just about anything we want. But we don’t have the right to speak without being criticized. You can say anything you want, no matter how offensive it is. But other people have the right to criticize you for saying it. You can respond by changing your language. You can respond by making a logical argument about why what you said actually isn’t as bad as the other person thinks it is. Or you can just ignore the people who think you are offensive, and continue doing whatever you want. What you can’t do is accuse people who criticize you of censorship. Well, you can—but you are being factually inaccurate.

Link to original article:
—Alex Wagner