Joyce Fegan: We must all hold ourselves to account for the words we use

From Brian Friel to Sexual Violence Centre Cork: Quiet, wise voices keep reminding us we need to reflect on the way we frame other people — and the way we are framed by them
Joyce Fegan: We must all hold ourselves to account for the words we use

It's illuminating to contrast the language people use to describe Johnny Depp and Amber Heard (above) — and Sexual Violence Centre Cork this week offered wise counsel about it. Picture: Elizabeth Frantz/AP

In the world of politics, they have a very important tool called ‘messaging’. Some people refer to it as ‘framing’. Picture a frame and how it defines a photo or a painting. It keeps your eyes within very defined lines. In issues of public debate, there are people who are paid lots of money to come up with linguistic frames, key phrases, and points of argument that are then released out into the media. These well-thought-out and deeply considered phrases will ‘frame’ the narrative of the public debate on any given issue.

This week, one big issue has been that of our new National Maternity Hospital. Whether you’ve a full understanding of the legal or land ownership nature of the hospital or not, you’ve surely heard a few of the same phrases on repeat this week.

‘Misinformation’ has appeared many times. That word ‘misinformation’ — whether considered or accidental, who’s to know — is a very interesting word to be doing the rounds in any debate in 2022, where democracy is being interrupted by the often rapid spread of so-called fake news. Misinformation is a buzzword, but not one that’s comfortably established in our vernacular.

There’s that similar word ‘disinformation’ too. Neither sound too flattering, but which is which? The UN says disinformation is “information that is false and deliberately created to harm a person, social group, organisation, or country”. Misinformation, on the other hand, is “information that is false but not created with the intention of causing harm”.

Then the adjective ‘emotive’ got put before the word ‘misinformation’ on Thursday in relation to the public debate around the new National Maternity Hospital.

No one was calling any gender emotional but it was a very curious choice of word to bring into a debate on a woman’s issue — given the history, going back centuries that is. 

Words such as ‘emotional’ and ‘hysterical’ have long surrounded public debate involving women, especially debates relating to health and wellbeing.

There were other phrases too, like a “women’s healthcare revolution”. Revolution is a big word for a small country where abortion is legally permissible but not widely available.]

Of all the words spoken and written on the issue of the hospital this week, the best line goes to a woman by the name of Gráinne Conroy. 

She wrote a letter to Health Minister Stephen Donnelly expressing her views, and posted it to Instagram — not a place the political elite keep a close eye on for debate, like they do on Twitter. 

Her letter also appears in the Letters page of the Irish Examiner today, Saturday.

Her opening line went like this: “Let me start here — the National Maternity Hospital is literally where the future of Ireland is birthed.”

Her closing line was as potent. “A women’s healthcare revolution can’t be just a buzzy slogan — it has to mean something. Minister — when will it mean something?”

Words matter. Our world-renowned and vastly decorated playwright Brian Friel said so. In a recent RTÉ documentary about the late writer, he says: “Words are everything". 

For anyone who watched Dopesick, the US TV series on the opioid crisis in America, you’ll have seen how a few keywords on a warning label were what made the difference between a highly addictive opioid, Oxycontin, getting statutory approval, and not.

Words were what clever marketers used to persuade the medical community to prescribe it. No words, no billion-dollar business.

Words matter. And the words we use when it comes to women say a lot more about us than it does about them.

Right now, on either side of us, libel trials involving famous women are in full flight. 

In the US, you have Johnny Depp versus his ex-wife Amber Heard. 

She wrote an article in The Washington Post in late 2018, saying she was a survivor of domestic abuse. She never named him. He sued her for $50m. 

It’s a duel of “he said, she said” and all that seems to matter is what he said. He is believed in the main. She is portrayed as a liar of despicable proportions. Not him. And sure so what, leave the two celebs at it. 

Not exactly, as pointed out by Sexual Violence Centre Cork.

“Amber Heard won’t see you mocking her, or joking about the abuse she’s describing, but your friends who have been subjected to sexual and domestic violence will,” read a post on social media this week.

In other words, our choice of words in the public debate of Depp v Heard is very likely telling victims in no uncertain terms that “you too are a liar”, “dare to speak out and this is the reception you’ll greet”. As if victims were under any other illusion.

In Britain, it’s the libel trial of Coleen Rooney versus Rebekah Vardy. Not women, but Wags (wives and girlfriends) of men who got paid a lot to kick footballs.

It’s a media feast, cash for controversy, clothes dissected, women trivialised, and headlines like “dressing like an innocent woman of the people”. 

Innocent of what awful crime exactly? If you’re a woman and you’re considering stepping into public life, beware of how you’ll be depicted.

Then there is Ireland. And politics. A “girl getting above herself”, is how Independent candidate Emma de Souza was addressed in just some of the online abuse she received for having the audacity to run for public office in the North. This week, she told this paper about some of the abuse she received in her pursuit of election.

Another example is when people call for political parties to have gender quotas for candidates — that idea gets lambasted. The key messaging of the anti-quota brigade is always, ad nauseam: “You should get nominated based on merit not gender.”  

Some people have done very well based on their gender though, those not restricted by childbearing or child-caring duties. Get a new argument.

Words are everything, as Friel argued. Words are signals. Those signals convey consequence. If you’re a woman and you question a public plan, you might hamper it. If you’re a woman and a victim of abuse, we’ll pity the perpetrator. And if you’re a woman running for public office, you’ll be abused for “getting above” your station.

The answer isn’t to tell individual women to “be bold”, “get above your station”, “use your voice” and hold all sorts of power to account. No.

The answer is to hold ourselves and our words to account so that all sorts of people can report crimes, ask all sorts of questions, and all sorts of people can run for public office.

 

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