Sticks and Stones and Words and Anger

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I don’t know how many times my mother made me recite that as a child, but it was frequent enough that it is seared into my memory.

Wikipedia says, “'Sticks and Stones' is an English language children's rhyme. It persuades the child victim of name-calling to ignore the taunt, to refrain from physical retaliation, and to remain calm and good-natured.”

I think that is a good attitude to teach to descendants of Vikings. Just because someone hurls an insult your way it is not productive to grab your sword and chop them in half. That’s an aspect of my American/European heritage that I’m a little proud of – the virtue of self-control.

Which explains why I have a rather negative attitude toward cultures that require their women to cover themselves up in public, for fear they will “cause” men to “lose control.”

You can phrase it any way you want to, couch it in any pseudo-religious terms you want to, but cultures that make their women cover up because their men can’t control themselves are admitting that their grown men don’t have the self-control that even adolescent boys have in our culture. It’s pretty difficult to have any respect whatsoever for people like that.

Those are the kind of people who think that murder is an appropriate response to someone drawing a cartoon they don’t like. The only response to that attitude is to murder them first. That is a very sad and ugly truth of life, but it is nevertheless a truth.

On the other hand, as much value as I place on that old “children’s rhyme” and the virtue of self-control, there are ways in which words do hurt, and hurt badly.

There are a couple of fundamental problems with language, any language. First, words can never be the same thing as reality. You can talk about trees all you want, you can have a hundred different words for a tree, but no word can ever be the same things as a tree. We try, with colorful and florid language at times, to convey the beauty of a tree, but all the words in the world still fall short of the simply reality, the simple majesty, of a tree.

One of the most widely known poems in the western world begins, “I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree.”

There is a fundamental truth in that line. Words are not the same as reality. They should never be confused with reality.

I think some of the biggest problems in our modern world come from not understanding that simple premise.

I have for years railed against the use of names of colors to describe people, such as “black”, “white”, “red”, or “yellow”. The terms “Black people” and “White people” are particularly abhorrent to me. The reality is, there are no black people and there are no white people. There are people with widely varying shades of brown. But people are lazy by nature and want to use quick short words and phrases, so names like “black” and “white” are popular short hand ways to refer to entire groups of people.

So what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong is that people confuse words with reality. Black and White are opposites. The phrase “It’s black and white” implies that there are clear delineations between things. And because the words mean “opposite” and “different”, people apply those attributes to the people they use those words to describe. Even as simple a thing as using those words to mean a certain group of people inclines us to think of those two groups as vastly different from each other, when the fact is we are so similar that even seven billion human beings can trace their ancestry back to one common woman a few hundred thousand years ago.

People are lazy, and people like words with power. Think about the contrast between “Black Power!” and “Dark Brown Power!” Or between “White Privilege” and “Light Brown Privilege”. If we use words that actually describe reality, then we lose the ability to set people against each other.

Oh, wait. Is that supposed to be a bad thing?

In this day and age of “social media” I have become very conscious of how people use words. To me, when I see people in a “discussion” where they call each other idiots or worse, I don’t see a discussion at all, I see a verbal fight, people trying to use words to hurt each other. Some people don’t take it seriously and just do it for fun, but most people take it seriously and it inflames temperaments everywhere, sometimes to the point where people decide to replace the words with sticks and stones, if not guns and bombs.

There are so many words and phrases that people use trying to sound reasonable that are really just underhanded ways of insulting people. My current least favorite phrase is “common sense”.

Any time I see “we just need some common sense laws” I read it to mean “we just need some laws like I believe we should have and if you don’t agree with me you are obviously an idiot.” Here’s a fact – there is no such thing as common sense. You can believe truly in your heart of hearts that something you think is “common sense” is obviously shared by the entire human population, but it is just not true.

So don’t talk about “common sense” laws if you really want something to happen. Drop that little phrase and talk about “the laws I think would work” and then actually listen to other people who disagree. Understand what their disagreement is, how they disagree with you, and try to find the middle ground where you can accomplish something together, even if neither side thinks it’s perfect.

Yes, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” But words misused can certainly thwart clear communication and make it more difficult to find common ground.

But you gotta be willing to put forth the effort to have clear communication if you really want things to change.