Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sticks and Stones

One of the things that I learned from working with Children is that Adults are liars. And even when they mean to be honest, they are often poor teachers.

Consider the following, which we often tell children.

Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But words will never hurt me.
It's often something that we tell children when we seek to unruffle their feathers after an incident of name-calling. But how often have your heard it said to the child who calls another names? In your experience, had anyone ever said to you: "Why on Earth are you calling Sam names? Don't you know that it's utterly ineffective? It doesn't make any sense."

Children, I've learned, are nowhere near as dim (or guileless) as we make them out to be, and they often come to very quick understandings of which side of a mixed message we really live on. No matter how often we tell children that words make for ineffective weapons when they're on the receiving end of them, when we are quick to punish or correct whenever a child is on the giving end, they come to understand that we don't really believe it. And that leaves aside the entire fact that we, as adults, despite telling children that words are ineffective weapons, are unlikely to forgo the use of them ourselves. Or be above responding to them.

And it's not always the simple stuff, like calling someone an "asshole" or a "bitch" that drives this home. Westboro Baptist Church has garnered international headlines through nothing more than verbal epithets and signs. The New York Police Department is in a dispute with the Mayor, and again, garnering international headlines, because they feel that two of their own were gunned down, not because a nationwide community of millions of people feels aggrieved by what they see as several examples of police officers getting away with behaving badly, but because the Mayor and the Attorney General of the United States have said the wrong words in relation to those situations.

And once we've established in the minds of children that words are, in fact, effective weapons, everything beyond that is only a matter of degree. Here in the United States, there is a shared understanding that words are only mildly effective as weapons. For the most part, anyway. But there are plenty of exceptions to that rule, and they are writ large every time someone seeks to shield themselves or others from words they find psychologically or emotionally damaging. Sometimes those exceptions are due to the nature of the words (You can't say that on television.) and other times they are due to the nature of the speaker (Injunction against Westboro Baptist, anyone?), but the effect is the same - the lesson is taught that some words are, as George Carlin put it, "really bad." And this leaves aside the cases of speech that we find illegal for other reasons, like conspiring to break the law. Which we may find more rational, but still amounts to the idea that some speech should be punishable as dangerous in and of itself. In other cultures, the lines are drawn in different places. Perhaps insulting the rules is beyond the pale. Or injuring the feelings of the religious. Or denying historical events important to one group or another.

And once we establish that speech should be punishable, then the punishments are also simply a matter of degree. After all, some places see some things as more harmful than others, and meriting stricter punishments. Societies and cultures are not all the same, so why would we expect their legal systems to be?

I think that you can see where I'm going with this. In the end, the idea that we should all be on the same page when it comes to matter of law, justice and fairness comes across as hopelessly utopian. And that is why people in different places, different cultures and even different families respond differently to matters of speech. But it's all built upon a groundwork that we lay every day in the way that we conduct ourselves. If we're going to teach our children that words cannot hurt, then we're first going to have to teach it to ourselves and start behaving as if it were true - regardless of how that winds up making us feel. We're going to have to make a concerted effort to break the cycle. It's unrealistic to think that we're ever going to completely do away with the idea that words, images or non-aggressive actions are weapon enough that sometimes, it's justified to take extreme measures in "self-defense." But even so, if we ever want to move in that direction, we have to start using more than childish platitudes.

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