Katz Links Language And Violence
Published: Thursday, April 26, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01
Modifying convention proved to be the theme in all senses of anti-sexism educator, author, and filmmaker Jackson Katz’s talk Monday night. Sporting jeans, a t-shirt, a blazer that seemed to be made of black felt, earrings, and a 5 o’clock shadow, he asked the audience’s permission to step out from behind the podium for his speech, because, he said, “stuffy isn’t really my style.”
The talk, titled, “Tough Guise: Violence, Media, and the Crisis in Masculinity,” took place in Devlin 008 and was the spring event for the Golden Key Honors Society. It was co-sponsored by the African and African Diaspora Studies Program, the Women’s and Gender Studies Program, and the Women’s Resource Center.
The dominant theme of Katz’s speech was how certain constructs of our current society, such as language and media, inadvertently serve to perpetuate the problem of sexual abuse. They dictate how we perceive and process information, and they need to be changed for real progress to be made. “If you can help people think about the way they think, it’ll have an exponential effect on them, on you, on us,” Katz said.
Shortly after abandoning the podium, Katz dove into a critique of the use of the term “women’s issues” to mean sexual assault.
“Calling it ‘women’s issues’ gives men a reason to not pay attention,” he said. As the co-founder of the Mentors in Violence Protection program and one of the creators of the Bystander Approach, both sexual abuse education programs geared primarily towards men, Katz is an advocate for getting men more involved in the prevention of sexual assault. “True prevention means going to the root cause of the problem, and the root cause of the problem is not girls and women,” he said.
He identified conventional terminology in matters relating to sexual assault as one of the huge obstacles to his goal. He noted that statistics are always phrased in the passive voice: “This many women were raped this year,” rather than “This many men raped women this year.” He claimed that the absence of an agent shifts the focus to the victims rather than the assaulters.
He then referenced Julia Penelope, a feminist linguist, who had done an exercise where she transformed the sentence “John beat Mary” into “Mary was beaten by John,” then simply “Mary was beaten.” Katz claimed this parallels the shift in conventional rhetoric on the subject of abuse.
“Our whole cognitive structure is set up to ask questions about Mary, and it’s not wrong to ask questions about Mary, that’s very important, but that’s not going to help us prevent violence,” Katz said.
He stressed the importance of making men the focus of efforts looking to end sexual assault, as they are the most common offenders. He also discussed the necessity to identify the “systemic forces” under which these men act. “What are these systemic forces? How do we contribute to them?”
The terminology that generally surrounds topics such as assault is one of the most powerful forces, according to Katz. He identified the courts’ shift from using the term “victim” to using “accuser” as “a giant step backwards for our society,” as it transforms the woman into the agent and the man into victim of her accusation, which leads us to subconsciously sympathize with the offender. Katz claimed that this simple terminology shift contributed to the pressures that keep victims silent.
Another problem Katz identified was the silence of men on the topic. He said that women are the overwhelming majority of people in attendance at the many sexual abuse conferences he either speaks at or attends. He spoke of women approaching him at such conferences and thanking him for his interest in the topic. “It’s embarrassing to be congratulated for what all men should be doing,” he said.
He blamed the silence of men largely on the portrayal of manliness in the media. This form of masculinity is often ultra-tough and sexist, or at least not compatible with an idea of manliness which requires men to speak up about sexual abuse. As a result, the social norm of men remaining virtually silent on the issue has persisted. Katz professed his belief that if men came to sexual assault conferences, the numbers of assault would go down not because it is against the law but because sexual assault would be perceived as unacceptable in male peer culture.
As it is, men think that just because they themselves are not sexual offenders, they don’t need to attend conferences or workshops on prevention of sexual assault, Katz said. “We need to raise the bar in America today for what it means to be a ‘good guy.’ ‘I’m not a rapist’ is not particularly impressive to me,” Katz said.
Many professional sports teams and branches of the military have been required to go through Katz’s Mentors in Violence Prevention Program, which aims to get men talking about sexual assault, especially to other men, and younger boys in particular.