Men and Illegal Words
Lying is illegal when economic interests are at stake: libel, slander, fraud, misrepresentation, false advertising.* Why isn’t it illegal otherwise? Why is loss of income more subject to compensation than, say, loss of self-esteem (which may, of course, result in loss of income)?
And words are illegal when physical violence is involved: uttering threats, ‘fighting words’, intimidation, criminal harassment. Why aren’t they illegal when psychological violence is involved? Why, when it comes to illegal speech acts, is there an emphasis on economic and physical injury?**
Is it just that the male mode has ruled? Males engage in business, income-generating activities – making money is traditionally their role, their legitimator. Men also engage in physical contests of all kinds.
Loss of income is more measurable than loss of self-esteem; physical injury is more measurable than psychological injury. And males are more engaged in, more comfortable with, quantitative activities than qualitative activities.
Loss of income is less emotional than loss of self-esteem; psychological injury is often all about emotion. And males, of course, are uncomfortable with any emotion other than anger.
Some may scoff at criminalizing psychological injury. Surely physical injuries are more serious. Are they? I would suggest not, especially if the verbal assaults are ongoing. Many of us spend our whole lives crippled by apparently permanent injuries to our self-esteem, our belief about what we can and cannot do. The consequences of psychological injury can be as severe as, if not more severe than, those of physical injury; they’re just much harder to see and harder still to link to the cause. (And harder to recover from.)
On the other hand, if you punch my body, no matter how strong I am, my body will bruise. But if you punch my psyche, if I am psychologically strong, if I am mature and have a firm sense of my self, that punch need not injure me. So it’s our own fault if we’re injured by insult. As for other kinds of psychological injury, we are responsible to a large extent for our thoughts, opinions, beliefs, values, and attitudes and, thus, our psychological response to injury. So again, it’s our own fault if we’re injured. But a punch will break, not bruise, a less strong body. Just how strong, psychologically speaking, are we expected to be?
And anyway, physical aggression is considered illegal even when it doesn’t injure. It’s the action, not the consequence, that determines its illegality. If you punch me, whether I bruise, or break, or neither, I can still charge you with assault. Why doesn’t insult have the same legal weight? Because men aren’t into words – unless there’s money or a fight involved?
* Libel (written) and slander (oral) both refer to false statements that injure a person’s reputation, and you can bet that the reputation being talked about is that which enables the person to make money, not one’s reputation as a good person. Women don’t have reputations. Except sexual reputations. And they can’t sue if some guy writes her name on the locker room wall. (Hm…traditionally, her sexuality was her ticket to income, either through prostitution or marriage…)
** “Acts which inflict severe mental pain or suffering” are illegal as part of torture (CCC 269.1(1)) – but that’s only when such acts are committed in order to obtain information (the presumed purpose of torture). Why this exception? And emotional pain and suffering are routinely included in civil suits. Why not in criminal contexts?
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