The Subtle Language of Abuse: A Catalogue

Before using this catalogue, please refer to the introductory post explaining the catalogue. Some of that post has been reproduced below.

This is 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.

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 the findings from analysis of authentic texts, considered in context.

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 more documents. In this way, this project is ongoing, and the catalogue is by no means exhaustive.

Categories


Abstraction (relative to concreteness)

Relevant Potential Functions:
to conceal violence
to obscure and mitigate perpetrators responsibility
to blame or pathologise victims

Explanation:
Abstraction is a type of impersonalisation. It involves focusing on general character qualities rather than on specific actions, located in specific moments. It “occurs when social actors are represented by means of a quality assigned to them by and in the representation” (van Leeuwen).

Research on the Nuremberg trials (Schmid, Fiedler, Englich, Ehrenberger, & Semin, 1996; Schmid & Fiedler, 1996) suggests that greater use of abstract language for negative action implies personal responsibility for one’s actions and is strategically used by prosecutors to establish guilt.

Example:
1. “She was clearly a very demanding, self-absorbed hypochondriac.” (Source)
2. “That family is in great disorder.” (Source)
3. “You are in a very dark place.”

The messages in examples 1-3 are more abstract, accomplished by locating a problematic action in the core of a person’s identity and character.

Consider the difference between “He yelled at his wife” and “He is verbally abusive” The first is concrete, locating a wrong action in a specific, limited time frame. Concreteness limits the scope of a person’s actions and allows room for the portrayal of that person as an otherwise nice, reasonable person, with good intentions. It was just a one-time event, they might say. A momentary lapse of judgement. The message is that they are not normally like that. An insistence on concreteness can sometimes carry the implicit message that the victim did something to cause her own suffering. What did the victim do to this otherwise good person to make them behave badly?

In the image below, note the ways that the committee is willing to acknowledge specific instances of “deriding and mocking” but reluctant to acknowledge that such men “are misogynistic.”

Image from this post

Anonymisation (relative to explicit naming)

Relevant Potential Functions:
to conceal perpetrators and victims themselves
to conceal violence
to conceal victims resistance
to obscure responsibility

Explanation:
Anonymisation is not always a hostile technique. Protecting the names of vulnerable people, for instance, may be necessary to guard them from further harm. However, anonymisation of witness names can often function as a means to push an unwanted group member (particularly one bringing a valid complaint) out of a community. “Van Leeuwen (2008: 40) refers to the use of anonymous witnesses as indetermination, that is, a form of genericization which, ‘in this case … endows social actors with a kind of impersonal authority, a sense of unseen, yet powerfully felt coercive force.’ In other words, anonymous witnesses could be anyone around us, including people we might think are friends. Moreover, they cannot be confronted.” (Source)

This technique is part of an overall “us vs. them” strategy of distancing a community member from the rest of the group. This act can make a person feel unsafe in their own community, unaware of whom they can go to for help and support. (See also collectivisation)

Example:
1. “Into what do they enquire?” (Source)
2. “There are other examples of congregations offended by [Laura Smith]’s behaviour and demands.” (Source)
3. “The contents of this email are entirely my own, but I do know that there are others (whose opinions I value) who share various of these observations and interpretations.”


Authority

Relevant Potential Functions:
to obscure responsibility
to blame victims

Explanation:
The invocation of sacred authority of course involves the quoting of sacred texts or claiming the approval of a sacred figure in some other way. I’ll write about this technique of claiming authority more later, as I fill out this catalogue.

But for now, claiming authority can also involve the wielding of one’s own sacred authority. For instance, in the text I analysed to begin building this catalogue, the Anglican minister author claimed to be writing “personally” distanced himself in some ways from the leadership hierarchy of which he was a part. However, he signed his name with the full weight of his authority and also cited the authority of many other anonymised sources of authority. More than this, as example 1 below shows, he communicated duty and expectations that we the reader must view through the lens of his office, since he was writing this letter as an officer of the church.

Deontic modality is one linguistic tool that allows us to communicate this duty. Deontic modality is language that communicates what is obligatory, permitted, indifferent, forbidden. “Honestly, I have to tell you,” says the speaker, as if fulfilling some immense burden of duty. The same author gives us examples 2, where we see again what he is absolutely certain his reader is obligated to do. We can consider this against other parts of the e-mail where the author communicates skepticism, for instance regarding the scope of a man’s abuse and the church culture that fostered it. (For more on modality as a manipulative tool, see here).

Example:
1. “I understand that some may feel shaken by the alleged issues with Jonathan Fletcher but honestly I have to tell you that most of those I have spoken to about it take the view …” (Source)
2. “So I would just urge caution …” (Source)


Collectivisation (relative to Individualization/Differentiation)

Relevant Potential Functions:
to conceal perpetrators and victims themselves
to obscure responsibility

Explanation:
Collectivisation is a kind of assimilation which, used in a subtly abusive way, can signal that an entire group is against you (see Van Leeuwen, 2008, p. 49). This strategy, like the anonymization of witnesses, gives the impression of a powerful force standing against a member of the group. When considering who speaks and with what weight, it isn’t merely that individual critical witnesses are privileged but also that they speak with one voice (Source).

This technique can form part of an overall “us vs. them” strategy of distancing a community member from the rest of the group. This act can make a person feel like a stranger, unsafe and unrepresented in their own community.

Individualization is realized by singularity (as individuals). Differentiation is a step further, when an individual social actor or group of social actors from a larger group is set apart, creating a difference between the “self” and the “other” or between “us and “them” (van Leeuwen, 2008, p. 51).

Example:
1. “Personally, I feel that such an ‘enquiry’ merely puts a shadow of suspicion over hundreds of churches and pastors who have nothing whatsoever to do with this issue.” (Source)
2. “I understand that some may feel shaken by the alleged issues with Jonathan Fletcher but honestly I have to tell you that most of those I have spoken to about it take the view …” (Source)
3. “elders and ministers have raised a unanimous voice of concern.” (Source)
4. “Deacons of Covenant Community OPC passed a unanimous motion.” (Source)

In example 1, notice how the speaker differentiates himself (“Personally, I”) from the “hundreds of churches and pastors” who are collectivised and anonymised. As I mentioned in this post, the speaker speaks for himself but he brings with him the voices of many invisible others. We see the contrast this same speaker presents in Example 2, between the collectivised and minimised “some” vs. “most of those I have spoken to.” Again, the speaker’s claim to be speaking “personally” is weighed down by the collective voices he claims to represent. Examples 3 and 4 operate in a similar way. The combination of collectivisation and anonymisation is a powerful voice, difficult and perhaps even impossible to confront.


Categorisation (relative to Nomination)

Relevant Potential Functions:
to obscure responsibility
to blame victims

Explanation:

Social actors can be represented either in terms of their unique identity, by being nominated, or in terms of identities and functions they share with others (categorization), and it is, again, always of interest to investigate which social actors are, in a given discourse, categorized and which nominated.

Van Leeuwen, 2008, p. 52

The ways that people are named or categorised is a significant way that speakers position social actors in relation to one another. The speaker is revealing how we are supposed to view the different social actors relationally. We should also consider categorisation / nomination next to other techniques like anonymisation. Who is named and not named? How are they named or categorised? Why? As always, whose interests does that serve?

For instance, in one text I analysed, a woman central to the text was categorised in various ways, nominated only once. Instead, she was ‘his wife’ and ‘Mrs Smith’, her identity discursively created primarily in reference to her husband Dr. Smith. The way the text’s author categorised this woman thus deprived her of a unique personhood, positioning her as existing largely in relation to others.

Example:
1. “What and who constitutes ‘this culture’? All who claim to be evangelical? Or conservative?” (Source)
2. “I encourage you to vote for this study committee because your wives are gonna love you.” (Source)

In the examples above, we see two instances of strategic categorisation. In example 1, the author is casting his net widely to a desirable group, implying that an investigation of “this culture” is bound to harm innocent people (see here for fuller discussion). In example 2, we see another example of everyday sexism, where a speaker’s rationale for voting for a study committee is solely in relation to women as they exist in relationship to the male audience (see more here).


Euphemism (relative to Dysphemism)

Relevant Potential Functions:
to conceal violence
to obscure responsibility
to conceal victim resistance

Explanation:
Euphemism is when a speaker substitutes a mild term for a harsher or distasteful one. A speaker uses euphemism when they want to disguise an unpleasant truth, to minimise or hide an offense or to gloss over what they see as indecent. One research study on First World War letters and diaries found that Australian soldiers downplayed violence using figurative language like euphemism as well as metaphor (see also this source).

Dysphemism is when a speaker substitutes a harsher or distasteful term for a mild one. A speaker might use dysphemism when they want to exaggerate a term, often to minimize or humiliate characters whom he or she disapproves of or condemns.

Example:
1. “Personally I feel that such an ‘enquiry’ merely puts a shadow of suspicion over hundreds of churches and pastors who have nothing whatsoever to do with this issue.” (Source)
2. “I understand that some may feel shaken by the alleged issues” (Source)

In the examples above, taken from the e-mail to Pete Sanlon I analysed here, Rev. Jonathan Fletcher’s violence and sexual abuse is talked about euphemistically. Using euphemism, the author is concealing violence.


Exclusion

Relevant Potential Functions:
– to conceal violence, the people who have committed acts of violence and/or the victims themselves.
– to blame victims (particularly in the context of image repair after someone has committed violence)

Language:
Types of exclusion include suppression and backgrounding.
Suppression and backgrounding are realised through language in many ways, including total exclusion (no mention at all of certain social actors nor their actions), passive agent deletion, nominalisations and process nouns.

A social actor can also be suppressed and backgrounded merely by being mentioned less frequently or in a markedly different way to the other social actors. For example, in one text I examined, the author included multiple witness statements from men but no witness statements from a woman central to the situation the author was reporting on. The author frequently named her, described her and mentioned things she had done, but her voice and perspective were suppressed (see Hobbs, 2018: 144-145).

Some exclusions leave no traces in the representation, excluding both the social actors and their activities. Such radical exclusion can play a role in a critical comparison of different representations of the same social practice, but not in an analysis of a single text, for the simple reason that it leaves no traces behind (van Leeuwen, p. 39).

Examples:
1. “Such an ‘enquiry‘ merely puts a shadow of suspicion over hundreds of churches and pastors who have nothing whatsoever to do with this issue.” (Source)
2. “The abuse was severe.”
3. “In addition, the Board was informed that Dr [Smith] had been accused of speaking intemperately at that meeting” (Source).

In examples 1 and 2 above, the action (abuse, enquiry) is included, but both have been made into a more abstract form (a noun), allowing for (1) the abuser to be invisible and (2) the victims and advocates enquiring likewise to be excluded. In both, central human agents are missing, even as other agents are included and even personalised. In example 3, both the people informing the Board and the people accusing Dr. Smith are likewise suppressed, through passivisation. They are not recoverable from this text.


Impersonalisation (relative to personalisation)

Social actors can be personalised, that is, represented in human terms (personal or possessive pronouns, proper names, nouns, sometimes adjectives). Or they can be impersonalised, represented by other means, for instance, by abstract nouns or by concrete nouns whose meanings do not include the semantic feature “human” (see objectivation, for example).

Impersonalisation is a broad category of meaning which accomplishes a number of goals. Used as a subtle form of violence, it can obscure the identity and actions of abusers and their victims. It can lend an impersonal authority or force to a person or group’s action, behaviour or quality. It can communicate positive or negative connotations about that person or group.

Sometimes the language someone uses to talk about a person or a group can seem both personal and impersonal, so these are not totally fixed categories.


Lexicalisation

Relevant Potential Functions:
to conceal violence
to obscure responsibility
to conceal victim resistance
to blame victims

Explanation:
Lexicalisation is an overall strategy for negative other-representation through strategic word selection. Lexicalisation is a strategy that is less about grammar than it is about choice of vocabulary. Again, in order to determine if this is taking place, one must compare the ways different social actors and their actions are represented in a text. If there is a discrepancy, if certain social actors are more often positively represented than others, we then ask: Why? Whose interests does this serve?

In the examples below, we see how certain actions have been lexicalised, some even put into scare quotes, which can be used to dismiss or mock someone’s words. The use of “so-called” introduces skepticism, the issues are “alleged,” casting doubt. It has all “been blown up out of all proportion,” hyperbolic language used to cast the victims and their supporters are overly sensitive, even politically motivated. The supporters didn’t just articulate their complaint, they “aired” it, which was “a mistake.” All dismissive language. All obscuring perpetrator responsibility and blaming victims.

Examples:
1. “hundreds of churches and pastors who have nothing whatsoever to do with this issue and have never had any part in this so-called ‘culture which has allowed” (Source)
2. “I understand that some may feel shaken by the alleged issues with Jonathan Fletcher but honestly I have to tell you that most of those I have spoken to about it take the view that it has been blown up out of all proportion.” (Source)
3. 3.  “airing it that way at EMA was a mistake” (Source)


Objectivation

Relevant Potential Functions:
to conceal perpetrators and victims themselves
to conceal victims’ resistance
to blame or pathologise victims

Explanation:
One form of impersonalisation is objectivation. This “occurs when social actors are represented by means of reference to a place or thing closely associated either with their person or with the action in which they are represented as being engaged.” (van Leeuwen, 2008). This can be a location, a type of utterance or instrument that someone uses to carry out an action (letter, report, enquiry, survey). One common linguistic forms involved in objectivation include nominalisation. The process of nominalisation turns verbs (actions or events) into nouns (things, concepts or people).

Examples:
1. “There may be questions needing to be asked in certain circles …” (Source).
2. “I really don’t see that this kind of enquiry suggested by the letter is even possible.” (Source)
3.  “airing it that way at EMA was a mistake” (Source)
4. “Our aim is extending God’s house and father rule by helping men to establish their own houses in strength, workmanship and wisdom.”

In example 1, the author’s use of “certain circles” is suggestive of a relational group, but as a metaphor, it is vague enough to leave doubt as to which people the author actually means. The use of a passive form (“needing to be asked”) further de-personalises and obscures the ones asking questions.

Examples 2 and 3 involve nominalisation (enquiry, the letter, airing), suppressing the identity and agency of the social actors who enquired, who wrote the letter and who aired their concerns.

Example 4 is a classic example of sexist impersonalisation using objectivation. When we name women primarily in terms of a physical space traditionally gendered female, our language deprives women of a unique and complex personhood.


Vagueness / Uncertainty (relative to Specificity / Certainty)

Relevant Potential Functions:
to conceal violence
to obscure responsibility
to conceal victim resistance

Explanation:
Vagueness is about creating uncertainty and ambiguity. In a text, what a speaker is vague or uncertain about vs. what they are certain and specific about tell a story about their point of view. Again, context matters. In the context of violence, we pay attention to what a speaker represents as certain or uncertain, vague or specific, and whose interests that serves.

Epistemic modality or certainty is the use of language to communicate a speakers estimation of how likely it is that a certain state of affairs is, has been or will be true. In examples 1 and 2 below, the word ‘may’ signals that it’s far from certain that anyone is “shaken” by Jonathan Fletcher’s abuse.

Intensification can also help signal certainty or uncertainty. is “the linguistic expression of exaggeration and depreciation” (Bolinger 1972: 20). It can occur through adverbs or adverbial phrases that strengthen the meaning of other expressions and show emphasis. These adverbs and adverbial phrases include degree and focus modifiers. “Both degree and focus modifiers are subjective, that is they involve the speaker’s assessment and evaluation of intensity” (Source). In examples 3 and 4, the words “nothing whatsoever” and “really [not]…. even possible” convey certainty. And again, we must compare this to the lack of certainty, the vagueness that appear in examples 1 and 2.

Quantifiers allow a speaker to compare the quantity of one thing with the quantity of another, without specifying an exact quantity for either element. This ambiguity can be an effective tool in the mouth of an abuser. Notice how in example 2, ‘some’ is contrasted with ‘most’ in order to de-emphasize people who “may feel shaken,” though it is clear that this is entirely subjective, dependant on the personal contacts of the person speaking.

Examples
1. “There may be questions needing to be asked in certain circles …” (Source)
2. “I understand that some may feel shaken by the alleged issues with Jonathan Fletcher but honestly I have to tell you that most of those I have spoken to” (Source)
3. “pastors who have nothing whatsoever to do with this issue.”
4. “I really don’t see that this kind of enquiry suggested by the letter is even possible.”


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