The Responsibility of Audience

A while back I casually stumbled into a metaphor war over "rape." An individual had described what he considered an aggressively, eye-searingly ugly web page design (ironically for an essay entitled, "Design is Intent") as "visual rape."

You know what happens next.

Let's cut to the chase: does anyone really believe that his intent in that choice of metaphor was to simultaneously critique a reading-hostile color scheme and belittle the horror of violent sexual assault and the experience of victims? No? Then what are we talking about, really?

I know the argument: that casual use of the term diminishes its impact even within the assault context and contributes to the prevalent rape culture that disregards a woman's dignity, rights, consent and agency. That jocular use of the term erodes sympathy among police, medical and legal professionals and the public at large, feeding the broad perception that rape victims were "asking for it" or otherwise to blame for misleading their abusers.

I agree with those arguments re rape as violent sexual assault. What I don't agree with is that "violent sexual assault" is the sole interpretation and referent for "rape." In an ungendered critique of design objects, I have to contend that the alternate definition (3rd entry, dating to 14th century) of

an act or instance of robbing or despoiling or carrying away a person by force

should dominate.

Is the sexual crime more important? Infinitely. Should empathy for victims and for women in general, one in three of whom will be assaulted in some manner in their lifetimes, dominate? Absolutely. Is it a poor choice of metaphor? I say yes. But is it a willful denigration and deliberate play to offend? Fuck no.

Audience is responsibility, too. Deliberately choosing an unintended but more inflammatory interpretation of the utterances of another as the pretext for your outrage is cowardly. It is your refusal to grapple with the nuance and context of what was actually said, instead transposing it to an alternate context so that you can both dismiss the original and work yourself up about your own concern.

Language is complex, and English one of the more fascinatingly complex of them because of its aggressive borrowing and corruption of words from all over the place. "Rape" comes from the Latin rapere, meaning to snatch, grab or take away (by force). "Visual rape," then, would mean "to forcibly take away my eyes/sense of sight."


We're getting hung up on words, rather than what the words mean, and I think that impoverishes us all. It deadens our ability to reason and insists that we react on the basis of simple triggers rather than rational response. We're capable of better than that.

What are the bounds of language? What words, if any, should be off-limits? I don't believe any words should be absolutely verboten because they're just words, and people can express vile ideas just as effectively using other, more permissible substitutes. But I also believe that every speaker has a responsibility to bear for their choice of words, and particularly for their precision and deftness in deploying and making clear the intent behind their use of weighted words.

Nevertheless, authorship is still primary responsibility

In this case the original speaker rebuffed his critics by arguing for context, and that within his intended context the word should not be interpreted as referencing sexual assault for rhetorical power. He is technically correct, but I find the subject matter too trifling to be one on which to squander such "interpretive capital." If one is to ask one's audience to extend the benefit of the doubt, then one has a responsibility not to treat that benefit carelessly. He did express regret for the effect of his remarks, though.

In the end, I argue for charity. I argue for a reluctance to assume the worst intent in others, and a willingness to consider their perspective, difficult as it is. Doing so not only increases the likelihood that your interlocutor will be receptive to whatever points you seek to make, but might lead you to learn something you didn't know, too.

I am SO done with this issue!