The debate about whether ex world heavyweight champion boxer, Mike Tyson, should be allowed a visa for a speaking engagement in NZ in November brought to the surface some disturbing narratives. Some of the more worrying trends were around the diluting of specific language when describing Tyson and his crimes, and showed how language can be used as verbal sleight of hand to hide what is really happening. Mike Tyson was convicted of rape in March, 1992. The conviction still stands. It has never been overturned. He did three years of a six year sentence, then he was released.
More than a couple of things bothered me about the way language morphed in this affair, but I want to specifically address two.
Firstly, while the arguments pro and con Tyson's being granted a visa went back and forth various voices on the radio in NZ (callers, interviewees and hosts) described Tyson's crime with such language as:
'That business at the Miss America pageant.'
'Look, I think he probably did get a bit wild with her.'
'Well, we all know it was a ridiculous charge, wasn't it.'
'Look, he's made mistakes, he admits that.' (This was a very common refrain.)
Language can sometimes become an ever decreasing and diluting circle, where if the words wash round long enough they loose all specificity and potency and ultimately - context and meaning. Rape becomes a 'mistake'. Violence becomes 'a bit wild.' This is the linguistic legerdemain of denial, used both by bullies (including politicians - the diluting term 'collateral damage' comes to mind) and by those whose emotional attachment to figures they've given great weight to (sports stars, musical stars etc) have them acting as unofficial public relations operatives.
Secondly, I'm bothered that a change of language can be perceived to be some kind of cleansing device. In this article in the NZ Herald, there are references to abusive language, and more importantly, content (and I assume - intent) in some of Tyson's shows overseas. I don't mean bad language, as in profanity, but abusive language designed to marginalize and reduce. Here is a review from the Guardian about Tyson's show. Broadcaster and former MP Willie Jackson defended Tyson, because he believed what Tyson would have to say would benefit disadvantaged youth. I can't agree. For me Tyson represents a dangerous mirage, a false version of the warrior image so beloved in modern culture, and brought to (commercially lucrative) life in characters such as Aragorn (Lord of the Rings) and the All Blacks.
If Tyson is a changed man, as this heroic survivor narrative (rather theatrically) demands, then that will come out in his behaviour. And the chief insight into that is his language.
From the NZ Herald article above:
But Mr Jackson, who wants Tyson to speak to disadvantaged youths in
south Auckland, today stood by his support for Tyson's latest visa
"Broadway shows are quite different, I think, from messages to youths and to disaffected people," he said.
Mr Jackson would discuss with promoters what Tyson would say on his marae visit.
"If he comes, we do not expect him to be bringing his show to the marae."
But Tyson would have brought himself, the creator of the show with its abusive language used to marginalize and reduce. The man isn't cleansed by a change of language. If only it were that easy. If he waters his on-stage self down to suit an audience, what does that prove. It is simply verbal sleight of hand.
As for 'youth', discussing this with Trisha, she made the comment 'Why is it assumed that whenever the term 'youth' is used, that it is always exclusively male. Don't young women actually exist?'
Maybe Tyson has a knife-edge appeal to some people, in the way when I was a kid we used to light thunder crackers and run like hell. Liking their smoke and noise and primeval sense of destruction, without ever stopping to think what would happen if one went off in our hands. Doubtless someone else would then have had to pick up the pieces.
Boxing has produced a number of fighters much closer to that much overused warrior image. My post last November on the passing of former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier was about one of them. But this issue was never about boxing. Now that the legal position has been enforced and Mike Tyson didn't get a visa to visit New Zealand, I'm left with the uncomfortable feeling that the dust it kicked up carries within it more than a few suggestions that our dark underbelly is only ever a euphemism away.