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Saturday, June 05, 2010

What Mariella Frostrup and Kristen Stewart meant when they used those words

A few months ago I heard a couple of young women in conversation on the Tube. "He looked liked he was going to rape me but then he turned out to be really sweet," one said to the other. That's been ringing in my head ever since. The entire sweep of human relations reduced to violence at one end and charm at the other. It's the same style that describes things as "really brilliant" or "a bit crap".

I was reminded of that conversation this week when the actress Kristen Stewart had to apologise for likening the experience of being hounded by photographers to "being raped". At the same time the broadcaster Mariella Frostrup had to withdraw her earlier comment about the producers of Radio Four's Today programme being "a bunch of misogynists".

Let's be kind about this and assume that she reached for the word "misogynist", which means a hater of women, when what she should have used was a term indicating the producers had some kind of bias against women. Since there isn't a word that does that she would have had to articulate the actual thought. Kristen Stewart would have been more accurate if she'd said that the targets of paparazzi often looked as if they've been harried or violated. But she didn't.

In our tone deaf public discourse "personalities" reach for explosive words when they want to minutely increase the drama of their often drab conversation. This isn't just because they think it's the only way they'll be heard. It isn't just linguistic imprecision. It also has a crude moral dimension. It's intended to swiftly reduce complex issues to good guys versus bad guys and to clearly associate them with the former group. In that sense it is, to use a popular portmanteau adjective, "uncool".