Lucy Mangan

Lucy Mangan: “We need to stop protecting awful men with flimsy wordplay”

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Why are so many of us still reluctant to name the evils men do? Lucy Mangan has had enough with euphemisms

When I was nine, my parents dragged me to a party because the babysitter hadn’t turned up. At one point, we were separated and I got caught up in a group of guests. A man stood behind me, stroked my hair and said cheerily to the men next to him, “You can see why paedophiles get the idea, can’t you?” 

He didn’t expect me to know the word, but I did. Already uncomfortable, I now had the proof I needed that I should leave. So I slid out from under his stroking hands, away from their laughter. 

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I think of that moment often; the freedom and power that him using that specific, accurate word handed me. And, these days, I think often of its counterpart: euphemism, and the very real disempowerment it can bring.

Donald Trump recently tweeted that four non-white congresswomen should “go back” to the “crime-infested” places they came from. (It’s not the point, but just to make his factual ignorance clear – three were born US citizens, one arrived as a refugee when she was 14 and was a citizen by 17).

Clearly racist, you might think, possibly as your head dropped to your desk. But you’d be wrong. It was, according to a wide array of sources, merely “racially infused”. Possibly “racially charged” or “a dog whistle” to those straining to hear it. It was “unacceptable”, according to Boris Johnson, who may be our prime minister by the time you read this. Or, my particular favourite, Trump was “speaking outside traditional presidential discourse”.

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But not, at any point, was it racist. And it was definitely not a racist, saying racist things, to pander to a racist base. 

Not that. In another major news story, billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein has been repeatedly described as widely suspected of “having sex with underage women”. Not “having sex with girls”. Not “raping children”. God forbid that we be so vulgar.

It’s one thing for locals to have called Epstein’s private Caribbean retreat, the centre of the sex trafficking investigation around him, “paedo island” for years, but quite another to actually say what that means. The commentary around musician R Kelly’s arrest has frequently melded racist and pro-predator euphemisms to describe his alleged activities with girls. 

Who do these mimsy circumlocutions serve? Not the victims, whose realities are being denied. Parts of the public, perhaps, who don’t want to think about what having a racist president or a sex trafficking network operating in plain sight would mean. Who don’t want to face the ramifications of what money and power can buy.

They serve only those who benefit from the truth being obscured, and those people rarely deserve protection. Words matter. There is beginning to be pushback on the language used, especially by the media, in other areas; for example, domestic violence – men who murder their wives described as “devoted family” men. We need to object in daily life too. 

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And we need to note those who resist change and ask why. Why might a man like Johnson – who referred to Muslim women as looking like “letter boxes”, black children as “picaninnies” and African tribal warriors as having “watermelon smiles” – only be able to muster an “unacceptable” regarding Trump? Why might, in the wake of Epstein and R Kelly’s arrests, astonishing numbers of men be keen to tease out a difference between ‘children’ and ‘teenage girls’? Why do so many not want to name the evils that men and their stroking hands do?

I wonder. I wonder. 

Images: Getty

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