The recent revelations about what Dylan Farrow went through at the disgusting hands of Woody Allen have raised for me a more general question about language: why do we use such sanitized words to describe such obscene acts? Perhaps it has to do with legal terminology, and the likely phenomenon that criminal acts are described in such a way. For example assault and battery. We all know what the word assault means in common usage. But how many of us unless we’ve been victimized know what assault and battery mean in legal terms. In the law there is always the tendency to define carefully distinctions between different degrees of severity and culpability within an act. Thus the wrangling in murder cases such as Derek Chauvin and what he did to George Floyd, and the hierarchy of charges of Murder in the first degree, Manslaughter in all the several degrees below that.
But more specifically I am annoyed and offended by the common use of the terms “Molest”, “Molester” and “Molestation” to describe horrendous violations against children. As I understand it, a common synonym for molest is “to bother,” or perhaps “to annoy”. How can we use these as words to describe the horrendous acts that must characterize “pedophilia,” another sanitized Latin word? To accuse Woody Allen of having committed child molestation surely must diminish and soften, in an entirely unjustifiable way, the alleged crimes.
Words have power. But words can also be robbed of power. I think we have to be mindful of that in our vocabulary and usage.