Language as a Tool for Understanding and Denial
We conceptualize reality by using language. This means that we describe the world around us by using words. The more accurately we describe it, the more aligned our perception of the world is with actual reality. That’s why using language properly is important to a person’s mental health, and the words ‘insane’ or ‘crazy’ are used to describe someone who is out of touch with reality.
However, our psyche exercises different defense mechanisms in order to protect ourselves from inner pain that comes from processing reality. Here are a few examples:
Denial: “It didn’t happen.” “I didn’t do it.”
Minimization: “It wasn’t that bad.”
Rationalization: “I deserved it.” “They didn’t mean it.”
Avoidance: “Let’s not think about it.” “Let’s talk about something else.”
Projection: “It’s not my fault—it’s your fault!”
Repression: “I’m not angry.” “I didn’t even need it.”
Moreover, very often we use passive voice to avoid attributing responsibility where it belongs: to ourselves or to someone else. For instance:
“It fell” instead of “I/they dropped it.”
“It broke” instead of “I/they broke it.”
“Mistakes were made” instead of “I/they made mistakes.”
“It so happened that it’s gone now” instead of “I/they lost it.”
Using Language to Obfuscate Abuse
Clearly defining and talking about abuse is painful. It is painful both psychologically and emotionally because it leads to hard realizations and unpleasant emotions. It is also painful because it challenges and changes our relationships with others and ourselves. By defining it, we have to face it. That’s why writing something down or saying out loud bears more weight than keeping it in our head.
To avoid feeling this pain, people tend to use language that would reduce it. I already gave a few examples of that in the first section of this article. People may use vague and euphemistic language to invalidate other people’s pain, or to deny causing them pain.
For instance, when a sex scandal happens, the media tends to talk about it in a very obfuscating way. “[The perpetrator] had sex with underaged women.” Or, “[Female] teacher had sex with a 13-year-old.”
Now what’s wrong with these statements and how are they damaging? First, ‘underaged women’ is a contradictory concept. We already have a word for that—it’s ‘girl’ or ‘teenage girl,’ depending on their age. Second, ‘to have sex’ implies consent. Children are unable to consent, which is to say that their consent is uninformed as they are unable to fully comprehend what physical, psychological, and social consequences it may have. That’s why we have laws that prohibit sex with minors. The proper word here is ‘rape.’
The headline should say: “Pedophile raped a child/children.” By using euphemistic language, it seems less vile than it actually is. “I mean, they’re women, so it’s not that bad.” “Who doesn’t want to have sex with a hot teacher?” “They simply had sex.”
It invalidates the victims’ painful experiences and potentially confuses them. It betrays them and shows that the speaker is siding with the abuser, or at the very least, a more neutral position. Moreover, there is a mass social effect where those who read it and don’t notice it also begin to think that it’s not that bad.
Using Language to Catastrophize and Fearmonger
It’s also worth noting that euphemistic language is sometimes used to create the opposite effect. Something minor happens and people appear to fake outrage with the purpose of appealing to fear, bias, and insecurity.
If we looked at a similarly themed example, for instance, two regular young people, one 18 and the other 17, are dating and engage in consensual sexual intercourse. Here, describing the situation as ‘rape of a minor’ would be inaccurate and contrary. In most cases it’s just two horny adolescents having sex. It’s very different from situations where rich, old men manipulate, groom, or otherwise psychologically abuse children into having sex with them or downright brutally rape them.
But one might create a sensational story of how your children are in danger because everyone around you is a potential rapist. This actually makes rape victims’ experiences seem less impactful because it muddies the waters about what rape is.
It doesn’t happen so much regarding rape because it’s a very serious accusation. Only about 2% of all rape and related sex charges are determined to be false. In contrast, only about 40% of rapes are ever reported to the police, and this is partly because victims know that if their claim becomes public, their every behavior will be scrutinized, they will be shamed for their sexual history, and they will be labeled as lunatic, psychotic, paranoid, and manipulative. (Link to reference.)
However, it happens with many other things. These days, there is more and more online propaganda spreading lies or defending all sorts of atrocious abuse.
The Bottom Line
Using accurate language to describe reality, whether external or internal, is vital to our mental health. That’s why honesty is a wonderful virtue. As I write in the book Human Development and Trauma:
“Saying that abuse is not abuse is incorrect and only compounds the harm. Moreover, denial of harm often leads to the toxic belief that what is objectively harmful is actually not harmful.”
That’s why the first step to healing is to describe what happened to you and how you feel about it. That’s why people feel so grateful when they receive validation for their pain. That’s why people get better when they can freely talk about their emotions and experiences.
When the pain is too great, however, we tend to avoid reality by using obfuscating, euphemistic language to make reality appear less emotionally threatening. Moreover, people also use this kind of language to minimize other people’s pain and to avoid putting the responsibility for hurting others where it belongs. Sometimes people, like people in media or social media, also take advantage of this psychological phenomenon by knowingly using obfuscating or sensational language to make things seem more or less impactful than they actually are.
If you have been abused, don’t let others define your experiences and emotions. Find accurate and precise words to describe what happened to you and how you feel. It’s the first step to overcoming it.