Press "Enter" to skip to content

The quiet violence of sexist language

“There will be more diplomatic language to countenance rape, torture, assassination. There is and will be more seductive, mutant language designed to throttle women, to pack their throats like paté-producing geese with their own unsayable, transgressive words …” were some of the observations made by Toni Morrison in her 1993 Nobel lecture.

It was hard for me to not think and reflect back on Morrison’s words this past Saturday as I awoke to the news of the death of Amanda Tweyi, a 21-year-old young woman in one of the male residences at Rhodes University, Grahamstown.

Although the cause of the young woman’s death is still unclear as she was found with no visible body injuries, many reports seem to hint at a case of gender-based violence as she was also found with the dead body of a 34-year-old unidentified man who is not a student at the university. Reports state that the 34-year-old who is suspected to have been her boyfriend was found with a bullet wound to the head in what is a suspected suicide.

In the digital age of Twitter and Facebook, there has already been speculation that people have made and shared publicly about this tragedy that Rhodes University Dean of Students Vivian de Klerk called an “unfortunate incident”.

What has been distressing about following the commentary and speculation on the passing of this young woman as many have already noted in social media is the extent to which it shows the numerous ways in which women still carry the load of blame for the violence men inflict on them.

Mail & Guardian columnist Khaya Dlanga for instance tweeted “Ladies, be careful of the men you date. You almost always know if he is prone to violence.”

Other commentary centred on speculation that the young woman was cheating and therefore other women should learn a lesson that they too will be killed should they do so. This was also the tone of Gareth Cliff’s commentary on Oscar Pistorius killing Reeva Steenkamp. On his personal blog Cliff wrote that Oscar was “an emotionally precarious chap” and that “ordinarily this would be more than enough to make me avoid someone like the plague. I only wish Reeva could have done the same” he concluded, instead of saying Pistorius should not have killed Steenkamp. Remarks such as these by Dlanga, Cliff and many have the effect of placing the responsibility of ending violence against women, on women, and not the men who perpetrate such violence.

In “Looking beyond the ‘good men’ in explorations of positive masculinities” Molemo Ramphalile notes that “we must understand that the obscene instances of gender-based violence that we have become so accustomed to, fundamentally come from the same place that the more unspectacular ‘small’ and benign forms of gender based violence do.” Ramphalile calls for us to look deeper at especially the language we use and how it often absolves men from “the responsibility and accountability for their active [and passive] participation in a system that ensures their privilege at the expense of women.”

In her essay on sexism in Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Audre Lorde notes the importance of language and the importance of even seemingly “small” acts which she argues must be seen in the larger “context of a systematic devaluation [especially of] Black women within this society”. She argues that it is in this context that it becomes acceptable for women to be blamed for the actions of men and be subjected to “depersonalising abuse”.

Toni Morrison stated in her Nobel lecture that “oppressive language does more than represent violence, it is violence” and that “sexist language, racist language, theistic language – all are typical of the policing languages of mastery” and must be rejected.

We do not know and we will never probably know with full certainty what took place that night and fateful morning when we lost these two lives in that Rhodes university residence. But what we do know now is how we have reacted to it. Morrison says “we die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.”

What will be the measure of our lives when so much of our language still blames the victim and privileges perpetrator even on the eve of “Freedom Day”? What will be the measure of our lives when violently misogynistic and misogynoirists are praised and celebrated despite the violent language they use? Will we ever connect and fully grasp that oppressive language, too, is violence?

* The title for this piece is partially borrowed from the title of Sello Kabelo Duiker’s novel, The Quiet Violence of Dreams.