Sticks and Stones

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.


5 thoughts on “Sticks and Stones

  1. Oh I agree. Words hurt MORE than sticks and stones. My mother used to (in a well meant way) say that to me all the time as a kid -and I thought it was the stupidest saying then, just as I do now.

  2. Joe

    I’m in two minds. Which is to say, I think there’s a caveat.

    Being subject to someone’s intent to tear you down verbally can be bad. Someone unconsciously tearing you down through their assumptions can be even worse. BUT…

    Language is not absolute. When some speaks and someone hears there are two different languages involved … the language of the speaker and the language of the listener. I do NOT presume it’s more the responsibility of the speaker than the listener to “please mind the gap”.

    Sometimes words are spoken where such a large gap exists between intent (including underlying assumptions) and interpretation (including underlying assumptions) that things are turned completely on their head. This is where there’s a bit of “suck it up” to do … to clarify, to discover the gap, to offer and accept what apologies are appropriate, and to move on … both a little wise and neither to blame.

    (We’ve all had times of bewilderment and frustration when our words or deeds are unreasonably misinterpreted by another and offense taken, and eventually hopefully that “other” has worked it out and apologised. Sometimes the speaker may have reason to apologise. Sometimes the listener. And sometimes both.)

    1. lindamciver

      I don’t think we’re disagreeing here, Joe. I agree that things get misinterpreted all the time, and offence read where none was intended, consciously or unconsciously. And yes, not getting carried away over these is important. Adam Goode, by all accounts, took it all with grace and sensitivity.

      But some terms have the racial slur built in – like suggesting someone with dark skin is an ape – and are not ok. Just not. Regardless of how well meaning people are, these terms hurt, and stick, and get perpetuated by the “it’s just a joke” brigade. They have an impact. They’re not jokes, they are sticks and stones of a particularly pernicious kind. I think getting upset about the use of these terms is actually important, because it promotes conversations like this one, and makes (a few) people think about what they are saying.

      1. Joe

        I cut out specifics about “ape” from my first reply.

        I’m 46, and I had no idea this tag was being used as a racial slur. (But then, I never spectate sports.) My only exposures to people being labelled things like “ape” or “gorilla” are as organised crime bouncer types in real or spoof movies or Get Smart or so forth, and definitely no racial focus in the sample. The term was always for someone big male and muscular who was hired as / currently performing as … big male muscles. *Probably* with no significant mental agility required at this time.

        I’ve seen it used affectionately.

      2. lindamciver

        Certainly it can be used in an inoffensive way. But it is still too recently that black skin was used in an evolutionary argument to mean closer-to-apes and therefor inferior. Sure I get that it is not necessarily intended that way, and people who use it need not be hung, drawn and quartered. But called on it? yes. always.

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