Introduction and Overview of The Subtle Language of Abuse: A Catalogue

An organisation or culture that perpetuates abuse will question the motives of those who ask questions, make the discussion of problems the problem, condemn those who condemn, silence those who break silence, and descend upon those who dissent.

Wade Mullen, in Something’s Not Right: Decoding the Hidden Tactics of Abuse

When you expose a problem you pose a problem. 

Sarah Ahmed, The Problem of Perception

The language of abuse can be loud, startling and obvious. It can involve name-calling, yelling and other overt expressions of hate and rejection, all designed to minimise a person’s standing in a relationship or other community, to distance or expel that person from the group. One of the simplest ways to talk about this is in terms of ways that someone uses language to communicate ‘positive self-representation’ and ‘negative other- representation.

These shades of meaning are utilized by writers and speakers to change realities and events as well as create different feelings and reactions within the audience.

Ali Rahimi and Rahman Sahragard, 2006
Photo by Anete Lusina on

But often, abusive language is much subtler, particularly during a grooming process where a victim is slowly trained to submit to more extreme forms of verbal and physical violence. Subtle abusive language allows for a perpetrator to later deny they did anything wrong. It allows them to gaslight their victim (That wasn’t my intention! You misunderstood me!). The subtlety of the abuse leaves a gap for the perpetrator to deny – attack – and reverse victim and offender (DARVO).

Subtle abusive language can also function as part of a perpetrator’s image repair in the aftermath of other violence. Such language involves suppressing the responsibility of the abuser and the offensiveness of their abuse by:
(1) concealing violence, (2) obscuring and mitigating perpetrators’ responsibility, (3) concealing victims’ resistance, and (4) blaming or pathologising victims.1 Image repair is also a frequent form of secondary abuse. In a religious community, language that abuses often appeals to sacred authority (a sacred text, for example) to conceal violence and obscure violent people’s responsiblity. The weight of such authority can crush a person’s soul, leaving them broken and further traumatised.

This post is the start of a catalogue of some of the categories of meaning that subtler abusive language accomplishes and some of the forms that this language can take, depending on the context in which they are used.

But we need to take care.

We should be careful not to over-interpret discourse data. Often passive sentences and nominalizations are used when agents are unknown, when they have just been mentioned and should not be repeated, or when the current focus is on other participants—such as the victims of violent actions rather than on the actors. This means that such data should never be described in isolation, but in relation to the text (co-text) as a whole and in relation to the context—who is speaking to whom, when, and with what intention.

Van Dijk, p. 129

So, context is crucial. There are two very important points to note here:

1. All linguistic features within a text must be considered within their larger context, both in the text and within the community producing and receiving it.
2. The same linguistic form may form part of the subtle language of abuse in one context but not another.

Among the questions to ask of a text during analysis are:

  • When, about what, by whom and to whom was the text written? (Is it written in the context of a crisis, for example?)
  • In what ways are the various social actors and their ideas/actions/character represented?
    • Is there a discrepancy between the representation of the different social actors and their actions? In what ways?
    • What social actors are missing from or minimised in the text but who are neverthless central or relevant to the text?
    • If the text was written after an act of violence, how is this violence talked about?
  • Considering the answers to the questions above, whose interests are served by this text?
  • In what ways does text conform to or violate sacred ideals central to the community in which it is written (for example, love, truth, justice, mercy)?

The starting point for this catalogue is authentic texts, considered in context. Some of these are texts I have analysed in peer-reviewed research. In order to show how the catalogue can assist in uncovering the subtle language of abuse, I will add to the catalogue as I analyse authentic documents and revisit my own past research. In this way, this project is ongoing, and the catalogue is by no means exhaustive.

If you would like to contribute a text for consideration as an entry in the catalogue, you can contact me here.

Subtle Linguistic Abuse: An Example

One of the first authentic texts I use as the basis for the catalogue comes from a tweet thread posted by the Rev. Dr. Pete Sanlon.

In my analysis of the text below, there are hyperlinks to different entries in the catalogue, where you can find further explanation about the technique that is being used.

When, about what, by whom and to whom was the text written? (Is it written in the context of a crisis, for example?)

Rev. Dr. Sanlon is an Anglican minister who was instrumental in commissioning a forthcoming thirtyone:eight review of former minister of Emmanuel Church Wimbledon Jonathan Fletcher’s violence against multiple vulnerable parishioners. Fletcher’s abuse went public after five men reported being spiritually, psychologically and physically abused by the former vicar.

In August 2020, Stephen Parsons wrote about the role of Rev. Dr. Peter Sanlon and another minister, Rev. Melvin Tinker in calling for the independent review into Jonathan Fletcher, that

In the last few days, two conservative evangelical ministers, Rev. Dr. Peter Sanlon and Rev. Melvin Tinker, have broken ranks to suggest that Fletcher’s misbehaviour is an indictment on the whole of the senior level of the so-called ‘ReNew’ constituency.  ReNew is the name for an annual gathering of conservative Anglican churchmen and the title is a convenient shorthand for the entire conservative evangelical block in the Church. 

Stephen Parsons, Time for Disclosure instead of Silence- Jonathan Fletcher

Prior to breaking ranks, Rev. Dr. Pete Sanlon had already received e-mails from ministers opposing the independent review. In his tweet, Sanlon gives us some of the text of one such e-mail, from Reverend William Philip of the Tron Church in Glasgow, Scotland, which he received in summer, 2019. This e-mail therefore constitutes one aspect of image repair, as various ministers who worked closely with Jonathan Fletcher grapple not only with Fletcher’s culpability but with their own and that of the wider institutions.

(Note: An earlier version of this post wrongly stated that Pete Sanlon received opposing e-mails from other ministers, including William Philip, in summer, 2020. The post has been corrected to reflect the fact that Philip sent his e-mail to Sanlon in summer, 2019.)

I asked Pete Sanlon for permission to use this public tweet as one basis for my catalogue of subtle abusive language, and he gave his permission. He has helpfully provided some of the wider context for the quotes in his tweet, though for ethical reasons my analysis focuses on the parts that he chose to make public.2 I checked with Sanlon regarding portions of my analysis, for example the question of whether or not Philip ever refers explicitly to Jonathan Fletcher’s victims in the e-mail.

PT stands for Proclamation Trust, an organisation co-founded by Jonathan Fletcher and his friend and former boss, Dick Lucas.

A few key points emerge from the tweet’s context. First, the victims’ reports (and other reports) about Jonathan Fletcher allege that Fletcher abused his authority, committed multiple acts of sexual abuse and was at times violent in other ways with his parishioners. Second, other leaders who worked closely with Jonathan Fletcher have already begun covering up some of those connections. Stephen Parsons writes, for example, that,

My attempts to understand Fletcher and his circle, and the way they interact with the wider evangelical scene in Britain, has been made difficult in various ways.  One problem has been in the fact that many online references to Fletcher were removed from the internet during the course of 2019.  His online sermons disappeared and other references to his presence at conferences and meetings have also been purged.

So the e-mail that William Philip sent to Pete Sanlon takes place in a context marked by Jonathan Fletcher’s horrific abuse and some evidence of a cover-up.

In what ways are the various social actors and their ideas/actions/character represented?
If the text was written after an act of violence, how is this violence talked about?

Analysis of the Public Portion of Rev. William Philip’s E-mail to Rev. Dr. Pete Sanlon

Is there a discrepancy between the representation of the different social actors and their actions? In what ways?
What social actors are missing from or minimised in the text but who are neverthless central or relevant to the text?

Relevant social actors in the e-mail include: e-mail author Rev. William Philip, Rev. Jonathan Fletcher, Fletcher’s victims, other people supporting the victims by seeking to hold Jonathan Fletcher accountable, and the wider church community (who have varying connections to Fletcher and varying culpability).

A few key points emerge from my analysis:

1. Philip positions himself as differentiated, that is, distinct from others (he speaks “personally,” repeatedly uses the first person pronoun “I”). But he also cites the perspective of an anonymised majority (“most of those I have spoken to”) who share his views. In other words, Philip speaks for himself but he brings the voices of many invisible others.

There is also the fact that Philip signs his name with his title, bringing the authority of his sacred office into the conversation.3 Philip’s choice of language directs Pete Sanlon to see Philip as *not* claiming group authority (I’m just speaking for myself!) and simultaneously to feel the weight of judgement both of Philip‘s sacred office and of a majority whom Philip doesn’t name and so Sanlon cannot confront. These techniques, combined, obscure both Philip‘s and also other leaders’ responsibility.

2. Philip’s e-mail communicates a strong “us vs. them” dynamic. The ways that Philip positions the wider church community against the victims is highly significant. The wider community is an overwhelming, collectivised mass of “hundreds of churches and pastors.” They are “most of those” that Philip has spoken to. They are the many “evangelical,” “conservative,” “Anglicans, some of whom attended or worked at “Iwerne camps.” How can one possibly find the guilty parties among such masses? His list of questions, all focusing on these many groups, make it seem impossible. Philip assimilates the perpetrators into a mass of people and strategically categorises them as evangelical, conservative, Anglican. All of this obscures responsibility.

3. Another way that Philip obscures responsibility is by concealing victims’ resistance through skepticism while expressing confidence that Jonathan Fletcher’s violence and the secondary violence by other church leaders’ is not a big deal. How does he do this?

First, he conceals Fletcher’s violence itself. Philip mentions Jonathan Fletcher one time, but he is largely excluded, never placed in active, subject position. Fletcher’s violence is nominalised, turned into a separate entity that exists outside of Fletcher. His violence is euphemised as “this issue” and “the alleged issues with Jonathan Fletcher.” Philip also refers to violence as “it,” a further euphemism in the form of a pronoun with no concrete antecedent. What is “it”? From this e-mail, we cannot know. It’s all “been blown up out of all proportion,” according to him and his many anonymous supporters. Philip talks about the behaviour of the community around Fletcher which obscures Fletcher’s violence in a similar way. It is this “so-called culture,” which Philip dismisses using scare quotes. A small number of peoplemay feel shaken,” implying that Fletcher’s violence only caused a little wobble. Nothing to see here.

Second, Philip further obscures wider community responsibility by emphasizing his certainty about the innocence of those “hundreds of churches and pastors” by using various intensifiers and emphatic negative language, stating they “never had any part” in Jonathan Fletcher’s abuse, that he “really doesn’t see that the investigation is “even possible.” His use of deontic modality (obligation, duty) makes him appear noble. “Honestly I have to tell you,” he says, that almost everyone he knows thinks all of this is just a minor problem. He is so sure that he “would just urge caution.” Who are these people whose innocence Philip is so confident about? Again, Philip doesn’t say. We must take this officer of the church at his sacred word.

3. And who are the victims? Who are their supporters? This is also hard to tell since “they” are never named. They are the small set of people, in “certain circles” who have no connection to the much larger community. They are the “some” who “may feel shaken.” There is so much passivisation in this e-mail that locating the victims and their supporters is as impossible as any enquiry into the abuse itself, according to Philip. The victims are so minimised that they almost don’t even exist. Their actions are nominalised, objectivated into entities that exist separately from people as human beings with agency: They are “an enquiry,” “the letter” and “such calls.” Worse, Philip blames the victims, using negative language to talk about their exposure of Fletcher’s abuse. This “airing [in] that way … was a mistake,” he says. When victims and supporters cry out for justice, they are merely concerned with political positioning, Philip claims. They are only interested in casting a “shadow of suspicion” over the innocent majority.

Considering the answers to the questions above, whose interests are served by this text?

The irony of this e-mail is that Philip’s very sending of it is evidence that a culture of abuse, the culture whose existence he denies, does indeed exist. His e-mail is a concrete artefect of a culture of denial, of minimisation, of victim-blaming, all of which propped up Jonathan Fletcher’s horrific violence. The mere fact that the victims are so impossible to locate in his e-mail demonstrates that he cares little for them. And if it’s true that so many agree with Philip, this also is evidence of a major problem. Whose interests are served? The institution’s, the leaders’, even Jonathan Fletcher’s. Not the victims. Not Pete Sanlon’s. Not the interests of others supporting the victims.

In what ways does text conform to or violate sacred ideals (for example, love, truth, justice, mercy)?

A key question we must ask when analysing every text is this: whose interests does the text serve? But a critical analysis goes further, considering also whether or not the text constitutes an act of discrimination, of abuse, of harassment, of hate. We might measure a text against the standards of civil law or some other moral code. But as I’ve written elsewhere, abuse is subjectively defined and determined by various groups. In this text, the author uses language that conceals violence, obscures perpetrator responsibility and the responsibility of others involved, and also blames victims and conceals their resistance. Christian readers will have to determine for themselves whether or not this author’s ways of talking violate sacred norms. It seems clear to me that they certainly do.

Note of Correction: I misspelled Rev. William Philip’s name (as Phillips) in an earlier version of this post. I apologise for this mistake which I have now corrected.

1 See the Interactional and Discursive View of Violence and Resistance, Linda Coates and Allan Wade, 2007.
2 Sanlon’s tweet does not include the sentences in full he quotes from. He gave me that additional context via private message. For example, the first sentence contains the word “personally” which was not in the tweet but is in the e-mail itself. Obviously, not having the full e-mail affects the analysis, but again, I chose to focus only on what was made public.
3 Since writing this post, I have received a request from William Philip, forwarded via Pete Sanlon, asking me to clarify that the e-mail he sent to Pete Sanlon in summer, 2019 was from his private e-mail account and did not contain his church title. So I include this note at Philip’s request.
However, I also note that the forwarded e-mail I received contained the image below in its signature, making it difficult to distinguish between William Philip, Senior Minister of The Tron Church, and William Philip, concerned member of the general Christian church community. This raises questions regarding the extent to which any Christian minister can set aside his credentials and sacred authority when talking about church matters. I remain skeptical this is possible.






2 responses to “Introduction and Overview of The Subtle Language of Abuse: A Catalogue”

  1. The Subtle Language of Abuse: A Catalogue – Religious Language Avatar

    […] using this catalogue, please refer to the introductory post explaining the catalogue. Some of that post has been reproduced […]


  2. Relative Abstraction and Concreteness: The example of the non-apology – Religious Language Avatar

    […] my most recent blog post, I introduced a catalogue I have begun building, on the subtler ways that language can encode and […]


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