The Mandarins IX

Valentina Dolciotti

Looking to the news, unfortunately, never disappoints. To discuss language and the responsibility it always carries with it, I can’t help but take a position regarding the infamous story (the ideal sequel to ‘Piccola Storia Ignobile’ by Italian singer-songwriter Francesco Guccini – if only he would go back to writing songs) of the young 22-year-old woman from Turin, who was unfairly fired due to her erotic photos and videos being shared. The way in which this piece of news was communicated, written and then read by millions of Italians is the real ‘ignoble story’. National and local newspapers used headlines such as (I quote verbatim):

– The kindergarten teacher fired because of a pornographic video;

– Kindergarten teacher is fired for a red-light video broadcast by her boyfriend;

– Sex: pornographic video from the kindergarten teacher in the mothers’ group chat;

– Kindergarten teacher sends pornographic videos and photos: fired;

– Teacher fired: no bigotry, only the headmistress’ incompetence.

Let’s spend a few minutes analysing these headlines, immediately silencing the first hypothetical protest that we might be met with: ‘It’s just a headline, if you read the article…’. No. The percentage of people who only read the headlines in a newspaper, especially online, far exceeds that of those who stop to read the entire article (70%). Having clarified this, let’s go back to the words chosen for the aforementioned headlines. What reason is there to point out that the woman in question is a kindergarten teacher? Are teachers asexual? Or will you only be fired if you are a teacher and take pornographic photos, but not if you are a baker? If being extremely precise about reporting all the facts had been about professionalism (which, by the way, I don’t think) then, in the title, it would also have been useful to include that the ‘boyfriend’ was an ex-boyfriend. This detail is important in the context of revenge porn (because it is, in fact, about revenge). Another example: ‘Sex: pornographic video of the kindergarten teacher in the mothers’ group chat.’ According to the investigation, the video was released, first of all, by her ex-boyfriend, violating the law (a detail that perhaps in a headline could have been summarised with the word ‘crime’ at the beginning, instead of ‘sex’), in a chat shared with friends on a soccer team (therefore men, not mothers).

Unfortunately, in Italy in 2020, it creates more of a stir to insinuate (and, therefore, to leave to the imagination) the idea that a pornographic video portraying a teacher (and a kindergarten teacher, at that! If she had taught in middle school, that would have been fine, or even in primary school… but in kindergarten, never!) spreads among a group of mothers. Mothers, in fact, are another notoriously asexual category, except for that one moment of sacrifice and elevation (for the homeland, for God, for the family) in which she gave birth to a child who became one of the students of the teacher in question. Indeed, one of the proposed headlines does not even specify to whom the teacher is thought to have sent the ‘pornographic videos and photos’. It probably happened like this – while she was having breakfast, she randomly sent them to her contacts in a moment of euphoria because women are capricious, it is known; in fact, until 1963 women were unable to become magistrates ‘because women are unsuited to exercising judgement and balance’. The last headline is, without a doubt, the best: ‘No bigotry, just the headmistress’ incompetence.’ I find it brilliant. First of all because it immediately clarifies – just in case it might occur to anyone in a flash of immediately dampened lucidity, that this is a case of bigotry (and moralism, and falsehood, and ‘respectability’, and machismo, and sexism) – that no, there is no bigotry here. We simply have an inexperienced headmistress who had never before found herself faced with a case of defamation and who was not at all accustomed to bureaucracy, regulations (and, evidently, common sense), and so unwisely pushed for and facilitated the resignation of the shameless teacher. And here it makes sense to refer to her as a teacher, yes, because a headmistress is an employer and personally responsible for her employees and trade union relations and it is unacceptable that she used a totally private video to force her employee to resign by defining her as being ‘Incompatible with the work of an educator’. Having sent erotic photos and videos to your boyfriend certainly does not undermine the professionalism of a teacher (or a lawyer, or a pharmacist, or a minister). Yet this is the message that has come down to us. And here, too, it is a question of language. Not necessarily verbal. Often the unspoken is just as strong. Often prejudices scream in our heads without leaving room for thought, reflection, or even just a little compassion.

Unfortunately, I have not found in the media a real effort to communicate this news objectively; indeed, it seems that the pettiest stereotypes have been cheerfully trotted out, pretending not to know how important words were and are. How much they can hurt, violate, traumatise, hide, cage, label. How carefully they must be chosen, especially by those who, by trade, produce them in large quantities.