Oh, they’re only words. It’s just a joke. Drink a cup of concrete and harden the F up. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words? Words can cut me to ribbons, destroy my self esteem and make me feel less than human.
There’s been a lot of noise in the media lately about racism. There have been a lot of comments on the wild and untamed internet about how some people are too thin skinned, can’t take a joke, and “as long as we don’t let it change the way we see you, it doesn’t matter what we say.”
These comments show a remarkable, and entirely unjustified faith in the objectivity of the human mind.
Here’s the thing. Words have intense power, whether we want them to or not. A classic psychology experiment asks people to do a simple task with lists of words. Those whose lists involved age – simple words like grey and wrinkles – left the building measurably slower than those whose lists were unrelated.
A similar experiment used words related to rudeness, words like “bother”, “disturb” and “bold”, or polite words like “courteous” and “patient” and “behaved” and then asked participants to come to see the experimenter when they were done. They would find the experimenter talking to someone else. Those with the “rude” words interrupted the experimenter 64% of the time. Those with the polite words interrupted the experimenter just 18% of the time. Many of the polite group waited a full 10 minutes without interrupting.
None of these people had consciously changed their behaviour. These are examples of what psychologists call “priming”. What it means is that our brains are very easily biased and redirected.
Which means that every time I call someone an ape, I cause a minute – but measurable – drop in that person’s esteem in the minds of all of those listening. Every time I denigrate someone because of their race, I cause a minute drop in the public image of that race. And all of these minute drops add up over time to a torrent capable of carving out a Grand Canyon in our hearts.
Words are potent. Words shape our hearts, minds and opinions in ways we constantly underestimate, and may never truly understand.
Whether we are denigrating on the basis of weight, accent, appearance, height, race, or ability, every time we do so we chip away at the public image, and the self-worth, of human beings who don’t deserve it. Human beings who are just as kind, empathic, intelligent, and deserving as I am. Human beings who are just as fallible, crazy, and troubled as I am. Human beings who don’t need any extra weapons chipping at their fragile shells.
Sticks and stones may break my bones. But words? Words can really hurt.