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The power of your words

"Language is not neutral, it is loaded with meaning. It communicates to others how we as individuals, and as representatives of an organisation, interpret, evaluate and make sense. Being aware of the language we choose and the way in which we use it can be critical in determining whose view of ‘reality’ we are accepting, what power relations we wish to reinforce, what kind of world we wish to adopt, and the type of social work we wish to create."

(Hawkins, 2001)

How to use language when speaking about and documenting violence

The language we use to describe violence can conceal, mutualise (share the responsibility), minimise or relieve the perpetrator of responsibility. It can blame the victim or make her mutually responsible for the violence. This is the common discourse in society.

Alternatively, words can hold people who use violence accountable for their behaviour choices and recognise the people who are hurt by it. 

Be clear about violence and who is responsible

  • Use language that reveals the deliberate and patterned nature of violence and abuse
  • Avoid words that mutualise violence or suggest consent. Words like ‘conflict’, ‘fight’ and ‘argument’ do not explain who did what to whom
  • Avoid words like sex, intercourse and other phrases that eroticise violence and fail to identify who is using violence and who is being hurt by it
  • Keep the acts of violence and the identity of the man who uses violence apparent in conversations and in all documentation.
Don't say Do say
The relationship is characterised by domestic violence. Paul is violent towards Liz and he uses control tactics to scare, humiliate and control Liz.
They have a violent relationship Paul hits, punches and intimidates Liz.
Violence in the relationship. Family violence.
Incident between Paul and Liz.
Liz was assaulted.
Liz was hit.
Domestic incident.
Violent incident.
Violent event.
Paul has a pattern of violence, intimidation and coercive control that over the last year has diminished Liz’s self-esteem and undermined her as a parent. Liz is now suffering from severe stress and high anxiety and has turned to alcohol as a way of coping. 
The violence.
The abuse.
Paul’s use of violence against Liz.
Paul’s violence against Liz.
Violent incidents.
Paul’s pattern of coercive control.
Pattern of violence and control.
Use of violence and control.
DV Domestic violence.
Domestic and family violence. Domestic and family violence.
The perpetrator. Paul.
He is a perpetrator of domestic violence. Paul makes a choice to harm his partner and to undermine her as a parent; and to harm his children by damaging the functioning of the family, for example, by causing them to be homeless and transient.

Compare these statements on violence

Statement 1: Magda is in a relationship that is characterised by domestic violence. Magda was assaulted during a domestic altercation.

This statement:

  • mutualises violence
  • uses the term ‘domestic violence (relationship)’, implicating Magda as responsible in some way for her situation
  • doesn’t explicitly report who hurt Magda or how
  • doesn’t report what effect the violence has on Magda
  • reports on a single incident with no mention of where it fits in a pattern of violence
  • focuses on Magda with no mention of who is using violence.

Statement 2: Magda and Martin are in a relationship and live together with Magda’s two children. Martin regularly uses violence towards Magda. In his latest assault on her, Martin pulled Magda’s hair and pushed her head into a wall. Magda had swelling, bruising and a cut on her forehead as a result. She also hurt her wrist trying to defend herself against Martin. Magda says this level of injury is a fortnightly occurrence.

This statement:

  • makes it clear Magda and Martin are in a relationship and live together in a home with two children
  • reports on a pattern of violence where Martin severely injures Magda
  • details the way Martin has hurt Magda in this latest incident
  • describes the injury Magda sustained as a result of Martin’s violence
  • makes Martin the focus and subject when reporting on violence—‘Martin pulled Magda’s hair’
  • makes Martin responsible for his use of violence against Magda.

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