Note: This was originally written as an answer to a Quora question asking why it was
When I say Germany raped Brazil, I do not mean that Germany had forceful intercourse with Brazil, and the person I am talking to also knows that I just mean Germany humiliated Brazil. The purpose of language is only to help me use words in a manner that both the speaker and listener know what it being said.
But, language also has a socio-cultural responsibility, and that is where the concept of political correctness finds relevance. Actively asking people to stop using the word “rape” in this casual manner is an extremely effective way to increase awareness about how ghastly the crime is, and how we should all contribute towards the change of mindsets that lead to sexual crimes against women. Language activism for awareness is a way similar to wearing pink to increase awareness about breast cancer, and going nude to discourage cruelty towards animals. Believe it or not, such awareness methods work, because they make people ask what the big deal is, which leads them to answers that matter.
Why the word “murder” is acceptable:
Vocabulary is what users make it. If a culture starts to accept a particular usage of a word, then that usage can’t, and shouldn’t be stopped. So, the word “murder”/”kill” when used to mean “humiliation” is acceptable, as it has been used metaphorically for centuries. Even in daily conversations, we often use casual sentences like “I’ll kill you for this!”
You will find people say “Are you blind?” or “Are you deaf?” over small matters. They are obviously not being intentionally insensitive to blind and deaf people, but the fact is, it is a well-accepted metaphor now. Howmuchsoever we feel that it dilutes the respect we have for physically challenged people, we can’t change the usage of the word, as it is now into our everyday language.
Context matters, and we have the ability to control certain usages as a response to other phenomena in society. This is an era where we recognize more than any other time in history that wrong mindsets cause rapes. We need to support the cause by being more mindful when we use the word “rape”, and also discourage others from doing so.
On Facebook, in response to this post, Manyu Angrish commented: “I most certainly concur that rape shouldn’t be used casually but I can’t bring myself to agree to your standard of political correctness. I’m oversimplifying your argument to an extent but the proposition that one should protest only if the usage is not already a norm seems kind of defeatist and hypocritical. Is calling my dreadfully boring lecturer a torturer all right simply because torture has been a part of our vernacular for a longer period of time? I love your insight on ‘language activism for awareness’ but I believe there must be a stronger and more consistent underlying principal (sic) for that activism to be taken seriously.”
[…] language is meant to evolve, and we can’t curb its evolution, whether desirable or not. Read this brief post: https://www.quora.com/…/How-do-I…/answer/Marc-Ettlinger
Personally, I have always been sensitive about such alternate usages, and you won’t find me calling anyone even “blind” in a metaphorical sense. But that doesn’t mean I cease to understand the realities of semantic change. We may have our personal values of respect and sensitivity associated with how we use language as individuals, but as a society, language is meant to change based on demand. It is similar to how people use sexist swear words, but someone may believe it’s not fine — while they have the choice to not make that usage themselves, they can never stop the society from making that use.
In fact, “rape” in the casual usage has already been the norm for centuries, even though somehow it sounds more repelling and insensitive than a word like “murder”. It is only now that we are starting to criticize it, because of increased understanding and sensitivity about the crime (which is a good thing). In this context, I believe it is our responsibility to actively block that usage. In fact, it should never have reached this stage of usage. It reached this usage only because we didn’t understand the seriousness of the crime and found it worthy of ridicule many years back.
Do you think we can stop ourselves from the alternate usage of the words “murder”, “kill”, “blind”, “dumb”, “torture” easily? I hope I am not being defeatist but realistic. Moreover, a time comes in the stage of the life of a word when a certain usage doesn’t remain merely metaphorical, but becomes a full-fledged alternate meaning of the word. Actually, if you look up “rape” in the Oxford Dictionary, you will find two meanings to it. When that happens, the second meaning technically has nothing to do with the first meaning, except that its origin lies in that.
Isn’t the word “paralysed” meaning “rendered motionless” insensitive to people suffering from paralysis? But, we have reached the stage where using that word in that meaning may be considered beautiful expression in writing.
If I cut the head of a doll and say that I “beheaded” the doll, isn’t it insensitive to the crime of beheading people, which is such a brutal thing to do, probably even more than simple murder? But some may consider me a good writer based on that usage!
If someone makes a startled face and I describe it as “he made a face as if someone just threw acid on him”, I am being insensitive to acid attack victims, but some may consider this a clever use of words.
I am not comparing rape with the other words, but whatever I said is only about the unavoidable phenomenon of semantic change in language and the written expression.
(All this said, “rape” in a humorous sense is nowhere a masterful choice of word. Rather it shows one’s lack of vocabulary.)