A few weeks ago I was reading Injustice Everywhere when they mentioned an article in the West Virginia Gazette-Mail titled Policing the Police. I recommend the article, but this post isn’t about police misconduct. What I find more interesting was an article listed on the side of the website that was linked with the headline “Teen charged with murder”. Unfortunately I can’t find the same article on the website, but I did find similar ones such as “Teens plead guilty to killing S. Charleston counselor” and “Teen charged in East End shooting“. These headlines are really what prompted me to write this post.
I’ve been noticing for a while that certain people and organizations will use words that while true will imply something different and specific to the people who hear them. The people and groups I’m talking about generally have a specific agenda they are promoting and include, but are not limited to, politicians, media outlets, and special interest organizations.
The specific words I want to talk about today are those related to age. To help me on this I asked a number of my friends to give me their first impressions as it relates to age on 23 words.
While this was not a scientific survey, and I only received 3 responses, the data generally backs up my beliefs.
Let’s start with “teen”. When I hear the term teen my first instinct is someone 16 years old. If I think about it a little longer I would say 13 to 18. Other impressions I get are high school aged or someone in high school.
But the definition of teen is someone who is at least 13, but less than 20. That is how it’s used in the stories linked above. They are both about 18 and 19 year olds. So while a headline of “Teen” is true, it implies something to most people that is completely different. If you’ve just seen a headline that says “Teen charged with murder” you’re going to look at those walking to high school a little fearfully, aren’t you.
Let’s take a look at another word, “child”. My first instinct is someone roughly 5 to 8 years old. In my survey I received a response of 4, 5, and 5-13. Wikipedia says that biologically a child is a human between birth and puberty. I think when the majority of the population says “child” that’s what they mean. The biological definition. But legally a child is anyone who has not reached the age of majority, generally someone under 18.
One of the places you’ll see child mentioned in the media is in a headline like this: Former UW-Madison student is on trial over alleged encrypted child porn photos
But one thing that is very rarely, if ever, mentioned in stories like that is the actual age of the “children” involved. Legally, child pornography is pornographic images of a human under the age of 18. It doesn’t matter if they’re 7 months, 7 years, or 17 years old, it’s all illegal. But by calling it child pornography the police, the justice system and the media are creating certain ideas in our minds. We’ve already seen that most of us think of a pre-pubescent person when we hear child. Is it too much of a stretch to think that the people responsible for “protecting” us are using that to their advantage?
Now I’m not defending anyone who would force another, through violence or psychological coercion, to perform a sexual act. And I’m also not defending recording a sexual act without a persons knowledge and/or consent. But I am saying I have a very different reaction to pornography involving a 7 year old, than I do to pornography involving a 17 year old. Especially considering that in 38 states, that same 17 year old can legally consent to sex. (30 states = 16yo 8 states = 17yo)
That’s right, the esteemed legislatures of 38 states have voted and decided that a 17 year old is old enough to wisely choose a partner, understands the risks, rewards, and consequences, and potentially create another human life and become a parent. But that same 17 year old is NEVER allowed to show an image of him or herself in a sexual situation. Even if they’re the only person in the image, and they are the ones creating it. In fact it’s illegal just to create it and teens have been prosecuted for it.
What kind of message does that send? Everyone talks about body image issues that teens have from magazines, TV shows, fashion models, etc. But here we are telling the same group of people that their bodies are so wrong, so immoral, so dangerous that they can’t even photograph themselves? That doing so could land them in jail for years, put them on sex offender registries, and basically ruin their entire lives.
Next we have “minor” and “underage”. For “minor” I received responses of 21, 18, and 17. While “underage”, received responses of 17, 18, and 17. I thought these responses were quite interesting and honestly that they would have been reversed. Legally, a minor is someone who has not attained the age of majority, for the US and most of the world, that’s 18. “Underage” is basically the same thing, and describes a person who is “under” the age of majority.
What bothers me about minor, and to a lesser extent underage, is that they’re so negative. The definitions as used in relation to age are negative; “not attained”, “under the age”. The way the word is used not related to age is negative; “inferior, smaller, unimportant, not serious, academics requiring fewer courses”. This is how our society, how our legal system, defines those who are that way merely because of when they were born. If you don’t believe me you’re not remembering hard enough or you were very lucky. The way most “adults” treat minors is that they are inferior, unimportant and not serious.
I guess what I want you to take away from this is to try to be more aware of the words people use who might want to influence your opinion. And not just the definition of those words, but of how those words are used and how they make you feel. Especially if they create a strong emotional reaction.