Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.
Back when I was a child, the old adage of “words will never harm me” rang true, for the most part. I had my share of bullying, my share of being taunted, but I had the strength of a loving family to hold me, at least a few good friends to bolster me, and a faith-based support group to be a safe haven in the storm. Yes, words might hurt, but they wouldn’t harm, instead they mostly glanced off me because I knew in my heart they were not true.
But then again, this was back when words had to be delivered face to face. Sure, words could be delivered in other ways, through letters or phone calls; many people have been cut by words that they can hold in their hands, words that endure on a page. But not usually, not years ago. Usually “in the olden times”, angry, hurtful, cutting, distressing words came directly.
Nowadays, it’s so easy to hurt others, and to be hurt, using words alone. I’m not just talking about cyberbullying, as horrific as it is, but about how the added degrees of separation that have become an accepted and indeed, major part of many of our lives allows words to overwhelm us, often detrimentally.
Social media, both where there is some accountability and in those applications that allow for complete anonymity, allow each of us to encounter a wide swath of people that would not have been possible prior to the internet: Facebook, Twitter, reddit, Tumblr, or platforms like Xbox Online or PlaystationPlus and the like. For the most part, this ability to interact with many different people from different backgrounds and different viewpoints is a marvelous thing. It makes our world smaller, allows for empathy, a greater understanding, broader knowledge, wider experiences.
But it also allows for those who are less tolerant, less secure, more narrow minded, to not only mount a personal attack, but also to jump on the bandwagon of others who gladly spout rigid viewpoints and who insist that a “worthy” life does not lie along a spectrum, but only manifests through right or wrong, black or white, us versus them. The words these people use are hurtful, yes, not only in their meaning but also in how strident and how ruthless and how unrelenting they are in not allowing for disagreement or for other possibilities beyond their own experience.
And oh, how easy it is to say hurtful things when there is no repercussion! At least if someone hurls insults at me to my face, they must live with seeing how their words affect me (or don’t affect me), they have to see my tears or my anger, or my indifference. They have to be ready for a physical response, which could end up me being shamed or intimidated, or them being ignored – or bludgeoned by an unexpected champion. My response wouldn’t be up to their own imagination to draw, and any self-congratulation of their own superiority would have to be tempered against what they would see firsthand and be forced to experience.
Not so when one is reduced to pixels on a page, a tiny avatar and a few words in a profile, or even further removed with no name or link to a real identity at all, allowing for totally anonymous belittling, name calling, intimidation, or even threat of bodily harm to the recipient and/or their families and loved ones, often simply because of a difference of opinion or a blind perception of difference. And we let it happen. In fact, we’ve let it grow to unhealthy proportions. It exists, rampant, everywhere, this remote and often anonymous verbal conflict.
Words have indeed become weapons, powerful ones, because many of the checks and balances, many of the ramifications of their usage, have been eliminated.
So how do we protect ourselves against these harmful words, in a world where they carry so much more impact than they used to? How do we mitigate their effects, lessen their power?
Certainly not by trying to regulate them, or curb them by legal means. Yes, certain words should be held as reprehensible and subject to self-censoring because their use is repellant to others and contain no tangible value other than to degrade or diminish. Also, the purpose behind words should in some cases be held up to a legal precedent – libel, slander, etc. – but unless the words lead to actions, we cannot hope to have – nor seek out – such clear cut circumstances so as to make them flat out illegal. The motives behind the words may be disgraceful, the purpose of using the words may be unacceptable, and I firmly believe that anyone, everyone, should be accountable for the words they use as much as they are for the actions they take, but trying to define something as nebulous as word usage is difficult at best, demanding, and open to interpretation (which is its own danger).
Instead, we need to apply the same safeguards with today’s harmful words as yesterday’s face to face taunts: we need to develop in ourselves a sense of self that is supported and nurtured. We need to believe in ourselves, and find encouragement or even protection when we feel that belief slipping. And, just importantly, we need to foster within our strong selves the ability to step back, to deflect, to refuse to rise to the bait, to refuse to engage.
Yes, refuse. Refuse to read the comments. Refuse to click on didactic links simply to bolster a sense of shared moral self-righteousness (for or against). To stop stoking our own internal rage simply so we can feel on the same platform as those who yell the loudest; there is no need to yell in order to be heard by those who will listen. Refuse to add to the sound and the fury. Refuse to respond to minor harassments. Instead, we need to commit to responding to all – friend and irritant alike – with respect (it can be done). Commit to not adding to the environment of ridicule, ass-hattery, or condescension, no matter how “cleverly” done. Do not poke fun at others – even those who most will find as ridiculous – because each person’s validity is real and indelible, not afforded according to some sliding scale based on looks, intelligence, savvy, or any other number of prejudicial variables.
But also, do not stand quietly while others poke fun or ridicule, do not tacitly add approval through silence. Voice your objection simply and calmly (perhaps privately), resist the witty response that cuts or snarks, and do not be drawn into argument or belabor the point, do not escalate what is already a smoldering tinderbox or even raging inferno. Stay out of the fray. And don’t fret if you are “unfriended” or derided for taking a stance; you have made your point, now just let it, and whoever cannot accept your right to make such a point, go.
And understand that in order to change something as huge as our world by a tiny degree, we must apply a whole helluva lot of force in the other direction.
Does this apply to everyone and in every situation? No, absolutely not. I do not claim to offer a societal panacea. What will work for me in maintaining my own sense of self worth and give me the ability to sleep easily at night is certainly not the same as what Anita Sarkeesian must employ. Or Brianna Wu or Zoe Quinn, or any number of folks, SJWs or not. But for many of us, it’s a start.
Because yes, sticks and stones may break bones. And just as assuredly, in this digital age and at this time of burgeoning cyber culture, words are now the common blunt instrument of choice. As I read recently in an article, there is no longer an “IRL” – an “in real life” as opposed to one accessed only through a keyboard. It’s all real life now. Which means our words must be considered as carefully today as our actions were in ages past.
We owe that consideration to the world, to all who may be impacted by our words, both intentionally and without our intention or permission. And we owe it to ourselves, so that we can draw unto ourselves our own strengths, or our own supports, and our own ability to refuse to let others’ words harm us.
Easier said than done, yes. But worth it. So very worth the effort, and so very empowering the outcome.