Friday, June 08, 2012

Tough Talk

domestic_violenceA few years ago I did a symposium on Language Forensics in Domestic Violence Cases. I’ve been asked to repeat it on a few occasions, since some of what we have learned in analyzing interrogation tapes and videos of abusers who kill proved to be valuable, and chilling.

It will come as no surprise to most of us that violent people use violent language. In fact, Americans as a cultural group have a national base-line of colloquial and cultural usage that leans toward the violent. We “take a stab at” things; we “blow up” rather than just lose our temper. We even use the word “kill” quite often in casual phrases: I could kill him; it’s killing me; that’s a killer car.

Does this make us a violent nation? We ARE a violent nation. Whether the language contributed to this, or whether the violence contributes to the language is a moot point.  What I have discovered in my work as a language/literary/verbal forensics consultant is a pattern in those who commit violence. Those who use such language frequently— often in a gas-lighting or manipulative way— are more likely to kill.

I first took note of this while reviewing a video taped interrogation of a subject who was being questioned in connection with the death of his live-in girlfriend. His insistence that he was innocent in any wrong doing included the following buzz-phrases:
  • I would never hurt a woman.
  • I hate men who hurt women.
  • I could never hurt a helpless woman.
  • I’d kill somebody who did that to my girlfriend/mother/sister.
  • Men who beat women are scum.
Very often one of the earliest indicators that a man will become violent, perhaps even deadly, are these disavowals and distancing phrases, coupled with a subconscious self-condemnation. It turned out, in fact, that this man not only would and could hurt a woman, he did. He beat, strangled, and dismembered the mother of his child. It was later revealed that he came from a background of domestic violence, had been violent toward his mother and sisters, and yet they expressed surprise at his later confession and conviction. Why? The subject may have beaten them, but he also beat boyfriends he felt were crossing a line, and had stabbed the lover of his mother in a dispute over the other man being “disrespectful” to her.

Since I had seen this as a pattern so common it had become routine, I interviewed two psychologists who worked with inmates who were convicted of domestic violence.  Dr. Alexandra Kelly and Dr. Stephen Medlin both reported finding the same common thread: abusers find their own behavior repugnant in others; abusers use gas-lighting language to express the opposite of what they DO in respect to what they SAY; and abusers appear to very-nearly universally use extremely violent language in describing other abusers.

What can we learn from this? When comparing what Doctors Kelly and Medlin have learned from inmates to interviews with survivors of domestic violence, a predicting pattern emerges. Men who repeatedly and forcefully portray themselves as hero-types, rescuers or protectors, but who use violent language are far more likely to be abusers, themselves. Ironically, very often the men who are most adamantly verbal are the more violent— even homicidal— of abusers.

Warning signs/phrases:
  • I’d kill anyone who hurt…
  • Men like that should be killed/castrated.
  • I could never harm a weaker/harmless/innocent … (HERE the abuser is actually creating exceptions for his violence; if she isn’t innocent he can harm her, if she’s “tough,” or fights back, she isn’t “weaker.”)
  • I once beat the hell out of a guy for… (HERE the abuser is confessing to being violent, but justifying it.)
Since insecurity is tangled in the roots of violence, it makes sense that abusive individuals want to over-inflate their importance, strength, power. So casting oneself in the role of protector can be a warning sign. Is the language passive or violent? “I want to be there for you no matter what” is far less chilling than “I’d kill anyone who hurt you.”

We can all be more actively aware of language, signals, and predictors in violent behavior. Tough talk may well be a warning sign.

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