Wife beater. Seriously? We call a shirt this name, without a second thought. (The actual term is “a-shirt” though people will look at you funny if you use that moniker. Because you should get weird looks for saying “a-shirt” instead of “wife beater.”)
“Whatever. I don’t mean it that way,” some have said when I’ve called them on it. (Yes, I’m someone who believes that my being silent in the face of this type of language makes me compliant and that by remaining silent I’m saying that the language is OK. It’s not. At least not to me.)
“Really? What way do you mean it?” I ask. Glares. Huffs.
We use this violent language when we are referring to a shirt, and somehow, that’s OK. We take for granted what those words actually mean. That they’re violent. Derogatory. Scary. When I did a Google search for “wife beater,” the first result was from the Urban Dictionary, defining the word as a “form fitting white ribbed tank top worn by men.” Not a link to a helpline. Not a definition of the crime. To a description of a shirt. But, I know: “It’s just a word.”
Just like “I totally stalked him on Facebook” is merely a funny way of saying that you looked at all his pictures and read his profile updates. You know, because they’re public. He has posted information and photos that he wants people to see. Being stalked in the criminal sense (and I’m paraphrasing/interpreting) means that someone is being followed and/or watched against their will and, in my case, unbeknownst to them, with the stalker’s intent usually being one of violence. But, I know: “It’s just a word.”
Phrases like these, used glibly and without thought to their actual meaning, perpetuate the idea that things like “wife beating” and “stalking” are just words—not actions, not crimes, just words.
But, by making light of these words, are we not saying that violence, particularly against women, is OK? That it’s no big deal to describe a shirt with violent words? That making light of a crime that already doesn’t get enough attention in the judicial system and is primarily directed at women is funny?
I encourage all of us to think. Before we speak. And to speak up when we’re exposed to this type of language. Because, I know: “No” is just a word. And, “That’s not OK” is just a phrase. But hopefully— hopefully—those words never lose their meaning. Because they’re more than just words. They are power.