'Minors' in the media: When language reproduces symbolic violence

Avatar journalist and media educator at Parafuso Educomunicacao
Paula Nishizima
Member since August 6, 2017
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  • Age 24

A group of teenagers hold hand-made posters during the 9th State Conference on Children and Teenagers' Rights in Paraná (Brazil). From left to right, written words are: 'Sexism?', 'One Brazil, many languages', 'Yes to (racial) quotas', 'Public education' and 'Capitalism'. Photo: Leonardo Faustino da Silva.

A group of teenagers hold hand-made posters during the 9th State Conference on Children and Teenagers' Rights in Paraná (Brazil). From left to right, written words are: 'Sexism?', 'One Brazil, many languages', 'Yes to (racial) quotas', 'Public education' and 'Capitalism'. Photo: Leonardo Faustino da Silva.

Yes, communicating is a human right. Still, one that should not be overrated to the detriment of all others. This explains why web pages which instigate violence against the LGBTQ community, women and other marginalized social groups are prone to being reported to authorities and shut down. Are they making use of their right to communicate? Basically, yes, but their messages rely on encouraging hatred and violence, and therefore contribute to violations of other kind to other people's rights.

However, when speaking about most of us, ordinary people with no intention of directly offending others, it is also possible to identify how power dynamics and social inequalities reflect in our everyday language. Instead of being all black-in-white, the whole picture contains many more shades of gray (excuse the pun).

A typical example of such 'grayness' is the vocabulary applied to break up news of teenagers' wrongdoings. In the Brazilian context, they are not named as teens, they become instantly 'minors' ('menores', in Brazilian Portuguese). And I say 'become' due to the exclusiveness with which the word 'minor' is used: only when reporting criminal activity. I can hardly remember a news report mentioning 'minors who are entering universities', for instance.

It is as though, whenever speaking about offenders under 18, the word 'minor' automatically pops up as a part of this 'criminality package' downloaded and installed in our operational system in dribs and drabs. To call someone a 'minor' not only reinforces the negative aspects of their actions, but also carries a stigma perpetrated by the Brazilian Minors' Code (1927)[1], the Statute of Child and Adolescent (1990)[2] predecessor. As a matter of fact, the Minor's Code addressed teenagers as indeed 'minor' components of society when compared to adults, the latter being considered its 'major' part, therefore superior.

Interestingly enough, the Minor's Code tackled primarily children and teenagers involved in criminality or facing violence and negligence. This approach denoted that the younger only deserved legislators' attention once they had done something wrong or were neglected by their families and had no one else to care for them.

The Statute of Child and Adolescent (1990), on the other hand, assumes that all people under 18 are subject of rights: individuals who should be regarded by public policies in a way that meet their needs and ensure their full development. In practice, this means not only to construct especial prison units for young offenders, but also invest in sports, culture and leisure facilities to prevent criminality. Thus, more than just bending to the 'politically correct', rethinking language implies discussing our own prejudices, recognize historical power dynamics and communicating with responsibility.


[1] The original text from the Brazilian Minor's Code is still available in the Brazilian Presidency website (Portuguese only), although the text is all crossed out due to its legal invalidity.

[2] Statute of Child and Adolescent (Estatuto da Criança e do Adolescente) is also available in the Brazilian Presidency website, in Portuguese only. Other comments on Brazilian legislation regarding children and adolescents can be found in this report of the Library of Congress.





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