Minding our language

Humour may be subjective, but Kate Rothwell argues that there are some words that should never be used in a comic context “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  A word may seem pretty innocuous in itself, but as five members of the Garda Síochána discovered last week, there are some words that we need to use with more caution than others.The particular item of vocabulary that was brought to the attention of the nation is a four-letter, one syllable word. This word is rape, and it was the casual use of the word and joking allusion to the horrific act that it describes among a small number of gardaí that has, unfortunately, brought the integrity of our entire national police force into question.Their conversation about two female protesters who had been arrested at a protest against the Corrib gas project was unwittingly recorded on a video camera that had been confiscated from the women. When the video camera was later returned, the women discovered the recording, which revealed that the gardaí in question had, in the course of their conversation, been amusing themselves with jokes about raping the arrested protesters.The transcript of the conversation was soon published in the national press, and resulted, unsurprisingly, in a public outcry for those members of the force involved to be reprimanded. The Garda Commissioner has apologised for the comments and the five gardaí have, at time of going to press, been restricted to carrying out office duties while an investigation into the incident is carried out.Yet the damage is already done. Rape is anything but a laughing matter; it is inexcusable and unthinkably traumatising.  It is also frighteningly common, as statistics gathered by the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre go to prove. The centre received over 10,000 calls to its national 24-hour helpline in 2009, but the majority of those callers chose not to report the abuse to the gardaí. Of the rape cases where the reporting status was known, only 29.1 per cent were reported, and only 8.3 per cent of those cases resulted in convictions or guilty pleas.Rape victims’ faith in the gardaí was already worryingly low, but how can anyone expect them to now turn to the ‘keepers of the peace’ for protection when some of their members have casually trivialised this most heinous crime? Garda Commissioner Martin Callinan is keenly aware of the damage that has been done to the force’s reputation, stating that victims of sexual abuse “should report those crimes to Gardaí who can take the necessary steps to vindicate and protect their rights and I want to assure them that they will be met with compassion and sensitivity”.The Garda Ombudsman Commission, whilst condemning the actions of those in question, also acknowledged the fact that some protesters had been intentionally taunting the gardaí. This may give an insight into the tense atmosphere at the protest, but such information is in fact irrelevant, as are the reasons for the arrest of the women involved.Whatever they stood accused of and whether or not they were guilty should not affect how members of the Garda Síochána treat them. The Garda Síochána website states the force’s main functions as including: “The detection and prevention of crime, ensuring our nation’s security […], working with communities to prevent anti-social behaviour, promoting an inter-agency approach to problem solving and improving the overall quality of life.”The gardaí, many of whom are undoubtedly cast in an unfair light thanks to the actions of a foolish few, have to deal with numerous unpleasant, violent and highly emotional situations, but it is their responsibility to treat everyone they encounter with respect. Those who have forgotten their moral and civic duties may treat them with disrespect, but the gardaí’s duty to the State means that they are expected to rise above similar behaviour.If anything positive can come out of this debacle, it is that the issue of being considerate about our language use has finally been raised. The Irish have long been renowned for a frequent usage of colourful curse words, but the use of abuse-related terms in humorous contexts is a disturbing new trend. ‘Frape’ or ‘Facebook rape’ is the first term that springs to mind. Used to describe a situation where someone takes advantage of the opportunity to edit or post something on another person’s logged in and unattended Facebook account, the results are often humorous and harmless, but the phraseology is not.You might think that if you say “I fraped you” to a friend, the only thing that might upset them is what you have posted as their latest status update, but if unbeknownst to you that person is a victim of sex abuse, those three words will resonate for far more troubling reasons.Language is a remarkably powerful tool. Used with careful consideration, it can generate a great amount of humour and express the most heartfelt of sentiments, but when used carelessly it can cause emotional damage that is beyond repair.