Friday, May 12, 2017

Words that hurt

I watched a video the other day that made me think. (Dangerous, I know.) One part of the argument being made was that it's not right to lump language that incites violence into the same category as language that hurts people emotionally, because it decreases the value of the words that incite violence. It took a little while for me to pick out why I didn't feel comfortable with that, but I think I have a handle on it now.

I was not a popular child. I read novels when I was six; had glasses when I was five (which, might I add, was in 1986, at the height of the Sally Jesse Raphael fad of glasses); and I never quite figured out that just because I knew something, it didn't mean that I had to tell everyone about it. I got teased a lot, is what I'm saying.

A lot of the insults rolled off my back, partly because I didn't see them as insults. OK, so I'm the teacher's pet - I can't argue with that, I frequently talk to the teachers after class about anything and nothing. I'm ugly - well, I'm certainly not what most people call beautiful, and Lord knows that puberty was not kind, so I can deal. I don't mean to say they didn't sting, and I spent more than my fair share of time crying in the bathroom, but I could move past most of them.

The ones that were harder to get over, though, were the ones where the intent was to make me feel like less of a person. An ugly kid is still a kid, but a bitch is something other than a 'normal' person. Those are the kinds of insults meant to treat someone like they are 'other,' to help define an 'us versus them' mentality.

Those insults hurt, of course, but they're more insidious than that. When you think about language that incites violence, it's frequently expressed along the lines of "Kill all the [slur]!" But think about how much easier it is to think that way, when you've already decided that some people are [slur]s, and so they aren't really people. Not people like you, anyway. And if they're not like you, well, it isn't like they really count, do they?

Language that directly incites violence is, obviously, a danger. But I don't think people should dismiss language that 'just' hurts emotionally - those kinds of words can make inciting violence much easier to swallow, even if you're not directly involved in the violence. There's a terrible power there.

Once again, friends, remember that words have power. Use them responsibly.