Whoever came up with the saying “sticks & stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” was either delusional, outright lying or attempting to make someone feel better.
I’ve worked with children and teens for nearly 15 years. Very rarely to they come to me to discuss a physical altercation. Hopefully this is because they don’t happen often but I also think that it is because in general when people have a fight – especially guys – they can duke it out and move on. They release their frustration, they get out the tension and then they get on with it. On the other hand, I have worked with many teens and young adults – both male and female – who come to me to discuss something that was said to them and the incredible hurt they feel at the comment(s). These comments can be an hour old, a day old, a week old or more and their impact doesn’t necessarily decrease and the hurt feelings don’t go always go away right away.
Personally, I’d rather be punched than have hateful comments hurled at me and I’d rather jump in front of a train for someone I love than allow them to be the target of hatred, bigotry or ignorance. I don’t remember any physical altercations from my past – though I am sure there were a few minor skirmishes but I do remember some of the verbal assaults I faced and ignorant comments I heard. Even things that seemed minor sometimes stick with us. When I was about 15 my great-uncle said to me “You may be the pretty one but your sister is the smart one”. I didn’t even hear the (backhanded!) compliment because I was so insulted that he seemed to think I wasn’t smart AND/OR that he (and very likely many others in society) believed that a woman couldn’t be both attractive and intelligent. Another incident I recall is that in college a dean asked me if I was sure I wanted to live in a “multicultural” dorm and reminded me that I was white. I was outraged that she seemed to believe that because I was white I might not value diversity or I might not feel comfortable in a “multicultural” setting. I have to believe that both my great-uncle and the dean were speaking without thinking and that they didn’t realize the negative ramifications of their comments because otherwise I would have to assume that they were hateful and ignorant and that makes me sad.
When I teach writing classes I stress the power of words. I encourage my students to really think about what they want to say and then how they say it. I remind them that they deserve to have a voice but that they are also responsible for what they say and the possible consequences – both good and bad. I remind them that to get respect they also have to give respect. This is particularly important in present day because of the emphasis on digital communication – facebook, text messages, emails, etc. I remind the kids that I work with that tone and intention aren’t always obvious in our social networking and that we may be trying to be funny or sarcastic and instead it may come across as mean or aggressive. I also remind them that once they put something out there, they can’t take it back and that they will very likely be judged based on what they said.
When I teach women’s studies classes I stress not only the power of words but also the impact we unintentionally have on others – esp. related to self-confidence and body image. For example, if I always deflect compliments or say that I feel fat or unattractive and I say it in front of my ten-year old niece or my younger cousins what message does it send? If they love me the way I am and they think I am beautiful yet I don’t accept their beliefs what will it make them think about themselves and what they believe? I can’t imagine something worse than having my niece look at herself differently or judge herself because of something negative I said about myself without realizing she was paying attention.
I went to a social media training about a year ago and the trainer encouraged us to imagine facebook (and any other social networking) as a cocktail party. She said that anything you say at a cocktail party – no matter how discreet you are trying to be – can be overheard, analyzed and shared with others. More importantly, she reminded us that once we have opened our mouths we can’t take back what we said OR control what happens next as our words are shared, our intentions are twisted and the game of telephone begins. This is especially true when we say something mean. If I quietly whisper to a friend at a party that I think the host looks fat and her friend overhears and shares it with someone else what happens? At best, I look petty to the few people who know what I said. At worst it gets back to the host and I hurt her feelings and look like an insecure or judgmental bitch. However, if I think carefully about what I say and the weight my words might carry I wouldn’t say the host looked fat even if it was true and instead I might talk about how she has created a great atmosphere for a gathering. In that situation at best my words get back to the host and she feels good about herself. At a minimum, I put good vibes out in the universe and the people who hear me hopefully remember me as a kind person with good things to say about people.
In all of my interaction with youth – personal relationships, mentoring programs, teaching/advising, etc. I have a pretty strict policy on word choice. In the movie Malcolm X one of the characters says: “A man curses because he doesn’t have the words to say what’s on his mind.” I believe this and I believe that when we put down others, or use negative words to describe others, it is because we are scared of something we don’t understand or that we are not smart enough or compassionate enough to come up with an alternate word choice. I tell my students that in order to create a respectful environment we have to be careful of the words we use. For example: I call my students out when they say “that’s so gay” or “that’s so retarded”. I discourage them from using the words “stupid” and “hate”. I don’t do this to restrict their freedom of speech but rather to encourage them to actually think about what they want to say and what reaction they are hoping for by saying it.
The recent shootings in Tucson have reminded us how important it is to be inclusive instead of divisive. Politics aside I do believe that our rhetoric has power and is often negative. Do sane people become violent because of one comment – not likely. However when we create a culture of hate how can we be surprised that people are affected by it? This is just one more reminder of how important it is to think before we speak. We can disagree with people about politics, religion, social issues, etc. without attacking them. We can dislike what people say without disliking the people saying it.
Today is Martin Luther King Day – an important day to remember the power of words and the impact we can have on one and other. We each have a choice – to put love and respect out there or to add to the hatred and ignorance. We can work to positively affect others or we can sit back and wait for someone else to do it. To me that seems sad and cowardly. As Dr. King said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”
Take a moment and reflect on the power of his words…