At the start of the week, news broke of a group of hackers who had accessed hundreds of nude photos of celebrities. They are threatening to release them all online.
I don’t want to write about the victim-blaming that has happened as a result of this: I’m tired of it. But in case it wasn’t clear, I have a real problem with victim-blaming. These celebrities were hacked because people decided to hack them, not because they were careless with their photos or computers. We have, naturally, in this conversation been drawn to discussing other devaluing crimes such as assault and rape. Rape happens because rapists rape, NOT because their victims were alone or weren’t wearing date rape drug-identifying nail polish. And although I hate this parallel that objectifies people and makes light of serious crimes like rape, theft happens because people steal – not because windows are open or TVs are visible. While not everyone agrees with the merits of ‘sexting’, we wouldn’t tell people to stop using online banking because of the risk of hacking: in that sense, this is no different.
(I do hope, however, that this brings about healthy discussion, especially amongst young people and their role models, about taking/keeping intimate footage. Case after case of material being in the wrong hands, leading to threat or blackmail or bullying, means that celebrities are not the only ones being violated and this is a potentially very dangerous issue. We also need to be talking about hacking, about the press, about the demand for privacy to be torn away by the consumer. I’ll cover one angle, maybe you could write about the others?)
Anyway – all that said, what struck me yesterday was the issue of language. Ricky Gervais wouldn’t be Ricky Gervais without being controversial and boundary-pushing. But yesterday, I think he went too far as he sought to, after a bit of victim-blaming actually, make light of the situation (just so we’re clear: what these celebrities will be going through is traumatic. Exposure, violation of privacy, devaluing – all of these things are difficult to deal with, whoever you might be.)
When Twitter called him out on that, he dismissed both his critics and his jokes/words.
Ricky disregards the power of language (which includes jokes, poetry, discourse, written words, debate, stories, chit-chat, academic journals and everything in between) and puts the onus on actions. Actions matter – no one disagrees with that. But two things about language:
Language is not neutral. Ok, I admit it: I’m a words girl. I love writing, I love talking, I express affection through words, I hold on to words and keep them stored up to ponder, I delight in thinking about words. But whether or not we are ‘into’ words, words or verbal language is a huge part of our society. Words have power. And I don’t think that power is neutral: words can bring about good or bad. When you open your mouth to speak or put pen to paper/fingers to keyboard you are creating something – that is constructive or destructive. I try to remember this in how I speak to people in my every day life. I think long and hard about the language I use in my job, because I know it carries power. Words can bring life, or they can bring death. In little and in big things, they are not neutral.
Language leads to action as it shapes our thoughts, leading to behaviour which builds in turn builds culture. It is naïve to ignore the mutually causal relationship between language and action: if language is both symptom and genesis of thought (Orwell talks about this relationship in 1984: “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought”), it is also what leads our behaviour. When we use demeaning words about people, it becomes more OK to demean them in action. (Could it be language-led culture had a part to play in the hackers’ behaviour?) When we use racist terms, we add to the spectrum of racism which, at some point, allows racist action. When we make jokes about planet care, we create a culture of carelessness. The “othering” that peppers the language of NI politicians allows others to disregard and abuse entire groups of people. Hitler’s words of hate were a powerful tool used to shape the thoughts and behaviour of others: they were a part of his action. Language IS action.
So as we continue to talk about the nude photo hackers, let’s be careful with our words. As we talk about other people, let’s use language that upholds their value. As we live the big and the little things, let’s bring life instead of death.
“Of all the weapons of destruction that man could invent, the most terrible-and the most powerful-was the word. Daggers and spears left traces of blood; arrows could be seen at a distance. Poisons were detected in the end and avoided. But the word managed to destroy without leaving clues.”
“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”