Column: Stalking should not be trivialized through absent-minded rhetoric

People aged 18-24 years experience the highest rate of stalking.

It’s fairly common knowledge that colloquial language reinforces biases, stereotypes or similar systemic constructions that influence people in negative ways.

For example, take childish comments like “that’s gay” or “that’s retarded.” Even when escaping the mouths of individuals who don’t consider themselves homophobic or ableist (and who may very well identify as the opposite), these pernicious remarks become virulent sentiments that resonate on a far broader social level.

I’ll readily admit the above notion isn’t exactly a secret, and for what it’s worth, society is progressing at a rather pleasant rate in this particular respect. While it might simply be because I’m not in high school anymore, it’s been quite some time since I’ve heard a genuinely prejudicial epithet from someone under the age of 40 in person. Keeping that in mind, I see little purpose in discussing the macro-social implications of those particular remarks. What I’d like to do instead is draw attention to a very particular instance of uninformed language that people might not realize is rather harmful.

“Facebook stalking.”

The Violence Against Women Act of 2005 defines stalking as “engaging in a course of conduct directed at a specific person that would cause a reasonable person to fear for his or her safety or the safety of others, or to suffer substantial emotional distress.” Such a definition, while adequate given its intent, does little to communicate the intricacies of stalking as a criminal activity, a mental health issue, and a psychologically trying and traumatic series of episodes for a victim.

Indeed, actual case studies of stalking tend to get fairly visceral reactions from people. Take John Hinckley Jr., who enrolled in a Yale writing course with the sole intent of stalking actress Jodie Foster. Hinckley repeatedly left Foster love letters, poetry and phone calls, and with his rapidly deteriorating mental health, he mentioned ideations of hijacking an airplane, as well as fantasies about committing suicide in front of the actress to win her attention.

Eventually, Hinckley penned the following letter to the actress:

“Over the past seven months I've left you dozens of poems, letters and love messages in the faint hope that you could develop an interest in me. Although we talked on the phone a couple of times I never had the nerve to simply approach you and introduce myself… . The reason I'm going ahead with this attempt now is because I cannot wait any longer to impress you.”

“This attempt” refers to his attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan on March 30, 1981, an incident that left the president incapacitated for nearly a month.

If you’re to apply more scrutiny to the numerous other details behind Hinckley’s case — from both a legal and psychological perspective — it becomes all the more evident that stalking can take the form of a mental health issue, an amoral criminal activity, or some combination of the two.

Keep in mind that John Hinckley Jr. is an admittedly hyperbolic example, and by no means is stalking limited to Hollywood, presidents and gunfire. Similarly, it’s not limited to persons with mental health issues. However, it does consistently result in significant emotional duress for its victim, and regardless of the circumstances, it’s a veritable psychosocial complexity.

Why is it, then, that if you ask most people to describe ‘stalking,’ they invariably resort to some clichéd mention of how “creepy” it is? If stalking can be considered “creepy,” then murder can be considered “rude” or assault “mean.” The popular description of stalking is so abrasively nonchalant that I’d argue few people appreciate the multifaceted depth of the issue on any particular level.

This is largely due to one of the most common colloquialisms in millennial rhetoric: “Facebook stalking.” While I won’t necessarily argue that the idiom bears comparable malice to “that’s gay” or “that’s retarded” (“Facebook stalking” isn’t meant to be a defamation), it remains a notably problematic sentiment that’s indicative of a prominent lesion in the general public’s psyche.

I can’t demand that you stop saying “Facebook stalking,” and if I’m being honest, I’m not insisting you do. Rather, I’m simply presenting the notion that we often use “stalking” in far too casual a manner, and that’s inherently problematic. On one hand, it may very well be triggering for some people.

In this sense, it’s more important that you stay informed and rectify any misinformation or gilded perceptions. January is National Stalking Awareness Month, and in the immortal spirit of information, here are some statistics on stalking:

During a one year period, 6.6 million people in the United States were stalked.

At some point in their lives, 16 percent of women and 5 percent of men have experienced stalking, when they have feared that they or someone close to them would be harmed or killed.

People aged 18-24 years experience the highest rate of stalking.

Conclusively, you can say whatever you damn well please, but it’s far more utilitarian to be aware of what’s behind your rhetoric and whom it may affect. Given the above statistics, it affects quite a few.

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