The man charged with the shocking murder of Jo Cox MP has been described in the media as a “quiet man.” The phrase has all the inevitability of an English team exiting an international football competition in the quarter finals. A quiet man. So many men accused of murder seem to end up being described that way. It’s always men, incidentally. Of course, most murderers are men, but female killers never get described as “quiet women”, even if they are.
Actually, the “quiet” thing goes a bit beyond that. The media also love to describe victims of murder, of either sex, as “quiet”, preferably “quiet and gentle”, and you’d be amazed at how many high-profile murders take place in “quiet towns.” Actually, Birstall, where this murder took place, has been described as a “quiet village” (how many “loud villages” are there?) That part of it isn’t too hard to explain; murders in places which don’t have high-crime rates tend to get more publicity because they stand out, and “quiet” here is the code word for “not a crime-infested hell-hole.”
As for murder victims – well, quite rightly, they usually attract sympathy, and usually no-one wants to speak ill of the dead. So “quiet” for them is a code word for “normal person who you are now encouraged to feel sympathy for”. And, yes, use of this sort of cliché is one reason why it’s more difficult to solve the murders of drug dealers, gangsters, prostitutes and sometimes people who are just unfortunate enough to live in socially deprived areas. I mean, who cares about those “loud” people in their “loud” towns? Brought it on themselves, if you ask me.
But what about the murderers? They may be quiet, but clearly it isn’t a good kind of quiet, like the victims. I suspect some of this has to do with the practicalities of journalism. Some murderers who attract notoriety are psychopaths, who being the kind of exploitative, predatory characters they are, are probably a bit short of friends and even family members still associating with them. Others have long histories of mental illness that have likewise left them socially isolated. In yet other cases, there is a family/friends but they don’t want to talk to the press.
That leaves the reporter to try and describe someone’s personality based on whatever random neighbours or work colleagues they can get hold of at short notice, and of course they all call the guy quiet. It’s another code word, this time for “Honestly, I barely know most of my neighbours anyway” or “Lol, who reveals much of their true inner self at work?”
In all fairness, the “quiet man” of murder isn’t totally an artefact of journalistic practice. As I’ve already mentioned, a lot of murderers are the end result of life histories that tend to leave them socially isolated anyway. And, in any case, if your mental life is dominated by violent sexual fantasies/paranoid delusions/general misanthropy and hatred of society, this isn’t exactly going to encourage you to open up to a lot of people. When someone building up towards murder does actually do that, the result is usually to allow the media to deploy their other favourite murder related cliché – “why did no-one stop this obviously dangerous loony/fanatic?” Of course, that’s recently happened with the man charged with the Orlando nightclub shootings.
Apart from the way it helps to create implicit categories of innocent and less-innocent victim, my main beef with the “quiet man” narrative is the implicit suspicion it creates around any man who can’t brandish the “normality passport” of wife, kids and, apparently, some kind of extrovert, “hail, fellow, well met” attitude.
I’ll put my cards on the table here – I don’t carry that passport myself. (An introvert with a blog ; truly unheard of stuff). I don’t intend to murder anyone, and nor do the vast majority of quiet or introverted or shy men. But apart from just being irritating on a personal level, I think this cliché can actually blind us to bigger threats that don’t fit its template. After all, the Kray Twins and Al Capone were the life and soul of the party, Stalin was a married father of three and Ted Bundy was considered charming by many of his friends. Sometimes, it isn’t actually the quiet ones you need to watch.