Of frapes and other misadventures

On his blog, Arnold Zwicky takes on the portmanteau frapea word that blends Facebook with rape to mean something along the lines of take over someone’s unattended Facebook account to post disparaging or embarrassing updates. Arnold’s text includes a discussion of the problem of trivialising rape and other violent actions and ends with this paragraph:

So you can agree that our culture trivialises rape but still not see every use of the word rape as literal (and trivialising of the experience of being raped).

Serene Vannoy disagreed with that last bit, and a somewhat acerbic exchange ensued that on Serene’s side didn’t completely stay within the conventions of friendly, polite discourse. Then Steven Levine, who originally supplied the example to Arnold by reporting some of his younger friends’ usage, felt that Serene had accused those friends of trivialising rape and rode to their defense in a lengthy comment. Following that, a few friends and I had conversations about this out-of-band, and I don’t think I’m overstepping any bounds by saying we were unhappy with the thread. Personally, I’m not ready to side with anyone completely; neither Arnold nor Steven seem to be seeing what Serene’s exactly objecting to. But at this stage, I’m not convinced that all original comments are still in place, so rather than re-hashing the arguments, I’ll attempt to go back and lay down three points.

But first, an anecdote. The first time I heard someone use the verb nuke to mean warm up in a microwave oven, I was quite shaken. I had heard rumours about such a usage, but didn’t expect it from a thoughtful and mild-mannered acquaintance — an American to boot. You say “nuke” and I think of people dying terrible deaths in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and of those maps of my hometown I had as a teenager that drew concentric circles around city hall, marking off probabilities of survival should a Pershing II warhead hit. At the same time, I wasn’t hypocritical enough to condemn my friend. First of all because their culpability-by-association for dropping nuclear warheads surely paled to mine for the entire Hitler and WWII thing (I’m German). But more to the point, for all I knew you might have peace activists who nuke their popcorn and lentil soup, maybe using the word out of habit, maybe as dark humour. There’s no direct line from a usage to a personal attitude. (What did I do at the time? In my recollection, I mildly said something like “You really use such a violent term for warming up food? Huh.”)

I still don’t use nuke in the kitchen. I still think it would trivialise one of the most terrible things humans have invented.

Which leads to my first point: Just because a usage of a word trivialises some important phenomenon it doesn’t mean that the person using the word intends to trivialise the phenomenon. And if, dependent on the moral framework we function under, we judge other people by their intentions (which I largely do) we can say that some words or metaphors have negative (disparaging, racist, sexist) connotations without at the same time accusing the speaker to be a racist, sexist, scumbag or otherwise bad person who callously disregards dead children in Nagasaki or rape survivors.

I make this distinction all the time. For example, I am completely convinced by Geoff Nunberg‘s claim, regarding the trademark invalidation dispute around the Washington Redskins (some kind of professional sports team of high prominence), “that redskin was a disparaging term when the mark was originally registered and remained so afterward”. The team has a racist name that deliberately taps into and appropriates the stereotypes associated with Native Americans. Does that mean that everyone who declares themselves to be a Redskins fan is terrible person with racist intentions? Obviously not. Does it mean they participate in the perpetuation of the stereotyping? Hell, yeah. And so do we all, for one thing or another, I’m afraid. It’s part of the human condition.

Similarly, the relatively new use of rape to refer to mildly to moderately unpleasant events that happen against one’s will (such as hard exams or friends fooling around with one’s unattended Facebook account) participates in the trivialisation of rape (the literal, actual act). It doesn’t make the speaker a bad person. It doesn’t represent an attack on them to say so, and how to act towards them is a question I’m not particularly interested in for the case at hand.

Second point: The degree to which a metaphorical use trivialises what the literal use refers to isn’t constant, but depends on a range of variables.

  • [Elaborated on by Arnold] Metaphors of violence are extremely common. Some (like asking for someone’s head on a stick) are intentionally chosen to underline disagreement and opposition, others are completely conventionalized and appear to be used mostly with no particular thought behind them (someone made a killing in the stock market, and Arsenal beat Manchester United 3:1).
  • [Also covered by Arnold] The degree of conventionality of a metaphor doesn’t only impact my judgement of someone’s intention, but also the degree to which a metaphor is able to carry a connotation about (or, trivialise) its literal meaning. The two highly conventionalized metaphors at the end of the previous point aren’t very good examples of trivialisation. Someone who is concerned about interpersonal violence would surely find better targets than to police commonplace use by (we hope) well-intentioned people.
  • My American friends are frequently surprised by the casualness with which German or French uses lynchen/lyncher . The actual context of killings of African-Americans during the civil rights struggles (and later) is too present in their mind to use the term for a messy shouting match or an internet shitstorm. Germans and French people, who are farther removed from the historical context, lack such an inhibition.
  • As pointed out by my partner Melinda Shore, it also depends on who applies a term to whom. “Oh, crap, I got fraped again” has a self-deprecating overtone; “hey, let’s frape mommy!” is a bit nastier.
  • Similarly, I find myself a lot more lenient with the dark humour of, say, emergency responders rather than having the arrogance to police their language from the high horse of theoretical considerations. And I see the value of hyperbole, even of the biting, sarcastic, challenging sort, in satire and art. (Which doesn’t mean I’m not judging case-by-case.)

As a recent innovation, frape and the metaphorical uses of rape can’t really claim the excuse of a high degree of conventionality. It may acquire it in the future.

So what’s the deal? Looking back at Arnold’s quote above, and the post/thread as a whole, I admit I’m not clear whether he holds that in order to function as trivialising rape, the word would have to refer to literal rape (or the speakers intend to refer to literal rape). This seems wrong to me — on the contrary, it’s specifically the metaphorical use of rape for something utterly trivial that, to me, makes this an example of trivialisation. I’d be a lot happier if the rape metaphor was used to underline some violent act on a non-consenting partner (though obviously some would disagree with me and never accept rape metaphors at all). If I use Endlösung/final solution to refer to a method of using up extra zucchini, I’m trivialising the extermination of the Jews by the Nazis. Whether that’s offensive or not depends who’s there when I do it, but frankly I would advise against this word choice in a gardening column.

Last point: The linguist records and analyses; but every language user makes judgements of quality and preference, and may defend them. These two modes are potentially at odds.  Arnold’s post is part of a long (nearly daily) series that deal with neologisms, often portmanteaus. And distasteful as I personally may find it, the innovative use of rape (which I’ve been hearing first-hand from undergraduates at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where I work) requires noting down and belongs in the dictionary. Linguists often deal with prescriptivist pronouncements that are based on faulty reasoning and freely invented rules. Here we have something different: The rejection of a usage on ethical grounds. We all have them — words we would teach a child to avoid, and explain why. One  reason to disfavour this particular usage is to account for people who’ve had the experience of rape in our audience. Another grows out of the observation that a number of young people appear to have rather fuzzy notions of sexual consent, and rape imagery or even threats have become a commonplace response to women stating an even mildly controversial idea with feminist overtones: it’s already being trivialised quite enough, thankyouverymuch, as Arnold recognises.

It is debatable whether there is causal connection between metaphors of violence and attitudes or actions. I doubt matters are anywhere as clear as that, but still keep a niggling question about the cognitive tools that such metaphors provide. All this war on drugs, cancer, terror — does this terminology really not implicitly help to justify the use of extraordinary, drastic means where cool rational analysis might lead to a more nuanced approach? Meanwhile some are working on nicer violent metaphors (and failing).



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