Congressman Todd Akin has apologised for having ‘misspoke’ when he said that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancy in defense of his stance against abortion. He is the latest in a string of politicians who use the ‘misspoke’ defence but language like this is actually hiding a wrongdoing that runs much deeper than malapropisms.
In case you wondered, misspoke is actually a word in the OED. It’s an example of a "Weasel word" – a term first coined by President Roosevelt in 1916 when he said the tendency to use weasel words was "one of the defects of our nation". They are described in Carol Ann Duffy’s sonnet “weasel words” written in the wake of the expenses scandal.
Weasel words, are rhetorical language, used by politicians to distance themselves from wrong doing. The metaphor comes from a weasel, who will suck an egg dry without breaking the shell – thus hiding its wrongdoing. No-one knows the egg is hollow until we need what is inside.
"Misspoke" could be a contender for the most overused weasel word in politics.
Hillary Clinton "misspoke" when she said that she had to run to avoid sniper fire when she landed in Bosnia – footage showed this was not the case. She apologized for having "misspoke."
Rep. Todd Akin is running for the Senate in Missouri, an important state in the richest most scientifically advanced country in the world. When he was asked about his zero tolerance stance on abortion in cases of rape, it’s reasonable to assume that he had come to his conclusion from some research. What he said was roughly that in cases of legitimate rape, pregnancy rarely occurs; the woman has a biological defense system against it.
Just for a moment, set aside the "legitimate rape" question, set aside the ill-informed notion of biology. It’s his apology that is damaging.
Akin apologised for having "misspoke," his later apology concentrated on "the words he used." This is weasel language. And it is masterfully hiding an ingrained hegemony.
The politicians (mostly male) gain political points by aligning themselves with some imagined mythical icon of an innocent foetus or a woman who has been raped. This emotive issue is being used as a battle ground.
There is a familiar pattern with Akin – we have seen it with Ken Clarke, we will see it with George Galloway. The politician says something inflammatory in some cases stupid. After the situation becomes intolerable for the politician and / or his party, the words are clarified “I misspoke” becomes the defence. But the issue is lost in this cycle. It has disappeared with along with the voice of the woman, whose body’s natural defence against legitimate rape somehow failed this time.
Stating simply that he "misspoke" belies the nature of the situation. It’s not a slip of the tongue that is the problem here. People forgive using the wrong words when your heart is in the right place. Akin’s words demonstrated the underlying misogyny in his train of thought. A misogyny that is ingrained in American politics.
Using weasel language undermines the power of real discussion and debate. Politics, once famous for its oratory, is now littered with misspeaking, misunderstanding, and even misunder-estimating. It is curious how the politician only realises they have misspoken when public opinion turns against them.
Rape is an emotive issue, and this week it has been used when males need to score political points. The danger is when we stop thinking about the issue and listen only to the eggshell veneer.
That misses the point that the woman in the situation has been eroded. She has vanished.
All that is left is a hollow egg, and weasel words.
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