Languages never stay still. In one key dialect of modern English, meaning can be conveyed by the absence of adjectives. It happens with the nouns “man” and “men”, though you’ll also see it with nouns like “youth/s”, “teen/s”, and so on. Mentions of “men” are often men-shuns, because the media avoid describing the “men” any further. But that very absence of description conveys a clear meaning. I can remember seeing a good example of this semantic rule – meaning-by-adjectival-absence – in 2005, when a policewoman was shot dead by criminals in the vibrant multicultural city of Bradford, in northern England. It was a highly unusual crime by English standards and the police, as you would expect, quickly issued a description of the suspects. They were on the look-out, news broadcasts informed the nation, for “up to three men”.
So the shocked citizens of Bradford knew that the suspects were “men” and that there were possibly three of them. Beside that, they knew nothing. The police did not think it would be “helpful” to add further adjectives to the generic noun “men”. But that absence-of-adjectives conveyed a clear meaning to those, like me, who are familiar with Politically Correct English, or PCE. This is the special dialect used by politicians, journalists, bureaucrats, academics and all other public servants in the United Kingdom, including the police. In PCE, the phrase “up to three men” means, in a criminal context, that the “men” were of a particular kind and that the crime was a heinous one. And what particular kind were the “men”? I don’t like to say: I’m discussing semantics and the English language, so let’s not muddy the waters, as it were, by pursuing red herrings. Or herrings of any other colour, for that matter.
Anyway, that was in 2005. Since then, I’ve seen the rule-of-absence in action again and again everywhere in the media. A heinous crime is committed and the media austerely deny themselves use of adjectives in describing the “man” or “men” in custody or being sought by the police. The absence of adjectives has a clear meaning to those familiar with PCE: it means that the “men” are of a particular kind. This rule-of-absence was very active at the BBC, when committed Guardian-readers interrogated issues around the so-called “Rochdale scandal”. Rape-gangs had been at work in a northern English town grooming and abusing under-aged girls. But the police, social services and Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) did not respond as well as they might. The crimes were known about for years, but there was a curious reluctance to investigate them and prosecute the offenders. Was it perhaps because rape-gangs, like cop-killers, are highly unusual by English standards? Well, they’re getting less unusual all the time, because they exist in many more places than Rochdale. Still, were the police, social services and CPS hampered by inexperience and unfamiliarity, despite their desperation to rescue the victims and end the crimes? Or was something else at work? The BBC interrogated issues around these serious issues:
Some of the failings that allowed years of abuse were to do with workload, resources and training. But what is most worrying is that this review reveals that a proper culture of concern was lacking within children’s services in Rochdale. When victims – often from chaotic backgrounds – asked for help, they were assumed to be “engaging in consensual sexual activity” or even involved in prostitution.
In reality they were being sexually exploited by a grooming gang who on occasions used threats and violence. There is no doubt that the abuse that affected dozens of teenagers could have been stopped earlier [but] parents were fobbed off with suggestions that their daughter was simply hanging out with a bad crowd.
Yet child sexual exploitation was not an unknown concept to care teams in this area. They first identified girls at risk of grooming in 2007. But even at the end of last year  they were still making mistakes in efforts to tackle the problem. This review is about learning lessons in terms of policies and procedure. However it also needs to ensure that children are listened to, irrespective of their background or upbringing. (BBC News)
So the “review” is “about learning lessons in terms of policies and procedure”. But what lessons? What policies are wrong? How has procedure gone so badly awry for so many years? Help seemed to be at hand for enquiring minds on Radio 4, the intellectual and ethical jewel in the BBC’s crown. On Friday, 29/III/2013, the veteran feminist Jenni Murray interrogated these serious issues on Woman’s Hour. Her interrogation was the first item, so I managed to listen to all of it. And I heard the criminals described as “men”. That was it: “men”. No adjectives were attached to the noun. Nor was any light shed on how these “men” got away with their crimes for so many years not merely with the connivance of the authorities, but with their collaboration. Why were the police, social services and CPS so reluctant to act against the “men”? Jenni & Co. fearlessly addressed the reluctance, but not the reasons for it. Why so coy? Had the patriarchy managed to gag Jenni and stop her exposing the truth on behalf of the victims? I find that hard to believe: Woman’s Hour has been campaigning against “men” and their wicked ways for decades. Jenni and other British feminists are uncompromising in their commitment to end the abuse of power by “men”. Sadly, despite their best efforts, that abuse is getting worse in the United Kingdom, as the Rochdale scandal shows. But Jenni didn’t solve the mystery of how “men” got away with such crimes for so long – and are still getting away with them in Rochdale and other British towns and cities.
Another day, another attempt to interrogate these serious issues on behalf of the vulnerable girls for whom feminists and other Guardianistas feel such concern and compassion. On Sunday, 1/iv/2013, Radio 4 devoted an entire programme to the Rochdale scandal and the “men” at the heart of it:
Rochdale Abuse: Failed Victims?
First broadcast: Tuesday 26 March 2013
The high profile child sex abuse case in Rochdale last summer – in which nine men were jailed for more than 70 years for grooming underage girls – has been defined as a watershed moment in how the authorities deal with this kind of abuse. But were there crucial failings? In an exclusive interview for File on 4, one of the police officers involved in the case claims that flaws in the way it was handled meant important witness evidence was dropped and some abusers were never prosecuted – leaving a new generation of girls potentially at risk and victims seriously let down. (Rochdale Abuse: Failed Victims?)
Alas, when the programme was broadcast and the “men” were discussed, adjectives were once again conspicuous by their absence. Still, a little more did emerge about the “men”. We were told, en passant, that they worked in kebab-shops and as taxi-drivers. And some still do, because many of them have never been prosecuted. Again, why? How is it possible for “men” to rape girls as young as twelve for so long and not be prosecuted for it, despite officials being well aware of what was going on? Well, if you listened to File on 4, you won’t have been given any answers. It didn’t explain how the “men” got away with it or why the authorities were so reluctant to intervene. Instead, you’ll have to apply the rule-of-adjectival-absence. The crimes are shocking, the “men” are adjective-free, so that means they are “men” of a particular kind.
The rule has been at work elsewhere. Similar scandals have taken place in other places in England, from Rotherham in the north to Oxford in the south. “Men” have committed horrific sex-crimes year after year while the authorities stood by and did nothing, at best. At worst, they actually helped the criminals – those ever-generic, ever-undescribable “men”.
But let’s not be Anglocentric: the no-adjective rule is alive and well outside England. Here is Michael Moore, one of America’s most important humanitarians and political thinkers, raising a profoundly disturbing question in an open letter to the Swedish government:
Why has Amnesty International, in a special report (described in detail here by Naomi Wolf), declared that Sweden refuses to deal with the very real tragedy of rape? In fact, they say that all over Scandinavia, including in your country, rapists “enjoy impunity.” And the United Nations, the EU and Swedish human rights groups have come to the same conclusion: Sweden just doesn’t take sexual assault against women seriously. How else do you explain these statistics from Katrin Axelsson of Women Against Rape:
** Sweden has the HIGHEST per capita number of reported rapes in Europe.
** This number of rapes has quadrupled in the last 20 years.
** The conviction rates? They have steadily DECREASED.
Moore expressed those deep, deep concerns for the welfare of Swedish women on December 16th, 2010. As he pointed out, Naomi Wolf, another of America’s most important humanitarians, had done the same the day before, denouncing Sweden’s “horrific record” on rape and saying that the “number of rapes” there in 2006 “was estimated to be close to 30,000”. But this co-ordinated concern-and-compassion raises an interesting question. Moore and Wolf are highly respected and influential across the Western world. If Sweden’s rape record has been so bad for so long, why did it take them till the end of 2010 to address it? Why did they not use their huge moral authority sooner to shame Sweden into doing something about the rape epidemic there? The answer lies in an allegation of rape made against the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange by the Swedish authorities in 2010. As supporters of Assange, Moore and Wolf promptly raised Sweden’s “horrific record” on actual rape to defend Assange against an extradition request by Sweden. Year after year, it wasn’t expedient for Moore and Wolf to notice what was happening in Sweden, until finally, in 2010, an allegation of rape was made against their friend Julian Assange.
But why is rape such a serious problem in Sweden? Well, neither Moore nor Wolf addressed that interesting question, so let’s turn to the report by Amnesty International, which is called Case Closed: Rape and Human Rights in the Nordic Countries. Like Moore and Wolf, Amnesty are deeply, deeply concerned about women’s rights – the report is, after all, a key plank in their campaign to “Stop Violence Against Women”. It offers this summary of the serious issues around which it intends to interrogate:
Rape and other sexual crimes are a grave attack on the physical and mental integrity and sexual autonomy of the victim. These crimes are violations of human rights in themselves and they also impair the victim’s enjoyment of a range of other human rights such as the rights to physical and mental health, personal security, equality within the family and equal protection for men and women under the law.
The report then explains who is committing these horrific offences:
While acknowledging that all sexual violence, regardless of the identity of the victim, is important as a human rights issue, this report focuses on one form of sexual violence, namely rape of women in the Nordic countries: Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. In almost all reported rapes in the Nordic countries of people aged 15 years or older the victim of the crime is female, and the perpetrator is a man. Women are raped by men they are close to or acquainted with as well as by men completely unknown to them.
So “men” are responsible. Does the report ever get more specific than that? No, I’m afraid not. The noun “men” is used twenty-five times in the report, the noun “man” is used thirteen times. Only once is an adjective attached:
Young and intoxicated women in particular had problems fulfilling the stereotypical role of the “innocent victim”. As a result, neither rapes within intimate relationships nor “date rapes” involving teenage girls generally led to legal action. The researchers also identified other groups of women who seemed to have problems asserting their claims in rape investigations, such as, for example, women from Asia or Eastern Europe who had relationships with Swedish men, sex workers, homeless women, women suffering from substance abuse or mental illness, and women who have previously reported rape.
So the report identifies distinct “groups of women”, but the “men” responsible for raping them are a monolithic block, identifiable only as “Swedish”. Which isn’t a racial or religious term, as Amnesty would be first to confirm: there are now “men” of all races and religions living in Sweden and contributing to its rich multicultural vibrancy. But the “men” there are also behind the horrific quadrupling in rapes over the past twenty years. Does Amnesty not want to interrogate issues around why “men” are raping so much more than they did in the past? Does Amnesty not wonder whether there has been some change in the “men” living in Sweden that explains the increase?
Well, plainly Amnesty neither wants nor wonders: with that single slight exception, the report firmly enforces the no-adjective rule. Who is committing the rapes in the Nordic countries? Men are. What kind of men? Well, men-like men. You know, men. Male ones. With Y-chromosomes. In short: men.
Yes, the Amnesty International report is a good example of both men-shun and pen-shun. The facts are plainly visible, but Amnesty, like Michael Moore, Naomi Wolf and the BBC, will not report them. The “men” responsible for Sweden’s rape epidemic are of a particular kind. The same kind of “men” are committing richly vibrant crimes in the United Kingdom and all other Western nations. So no adjectives can be applied to them – after all, there are higher concerns than identifying criminals and preventing future crime. Or so countless politicians, journalists, academics and “campaigners” across the Western world have thought for many decades. Some of them have not actually agreed with the no-adjective rule, but have acquiesced in it for the sake of a quiet life and their pensions. More and more “men” are committing shocking crimes that are less and less unusual by “British” or “Swedish” standards, but it’s best not to ask why or to intervene unless it’s completely unavoidable.
By staying quiet and shunning adjectives, the police, the BBC, Amnesty International and other concerned-and-compassionate organizations ensure that the crimes get worse and happen more often: the Rochdale scandal and Sweden’s rape epidemic are two examples among many. But at least people know that their pensions are safe when they men-shun, pen-shun and avoid confronting the truth.
The thing is, there’s a big problem with their reasoning. The forces responsible for ever-growing numbers of “men” prone to sex crimes in the West are also at work on Western economies. Indeed, these “men” are devastating for economies just as they are devastating for women’s rights. Men-shunning for the sake of a pension is as sensible and far-sighted as setting fire to your house to keep warm as winter sets in. It doesn’t work. You lose your integrity now and you will lose much more in future. Just watch.