But Words Can Damn Near Kill Me.
I wonder what was going on at the time the original diddy was written? If you were born before the 80’s, I bet your parents would often have you repeat the original rhyme when, as a wee little tot, there was that mean kid at school calling you ugly names. At least my mom did – she was serious about it too. But no matter how many times I mumbled it to myself, I can’t say that the name calling didn’t hurt. Quite the contrary – it hurt; it hurt a lot and for a long time.
What sparked this post was a casual comment in the comment section on a Huffington Post “article”. The article was about a woman and her path to getting over being called names as a kid. In the comment, this dude (it’s almost always a white male) told her she was being too sensitive, that at her age, something that happened so long ago shouldn’t still be affecting her now. Uh huh. I was seven when the teasing started for me. I was 16 when it stopped. I suffered the effects of that teasing well into my 30’s. Are there people who get teased verbally but manage to shake it off and go on to do great and wonderful things? Yup. Are there others who can’t get past it and commit suicide? Yup. Are there perhaps extenuating circumstances in both cases that helped create the outcomes? Most definitely. But it all comes down to words – what that person is being told to either combat or perpetuate the effects of those insults and taunts being thrown at them. I was lucky to have just enough stories of strength told to me that I knew no matter how much it hurt, I could survive it, so suicide wasn’t an option for me though it loomed as the ultimate escape hatch far longer than I liked.
Power Made Real
I have always believed in the power of words. Tone and context add their own unique flavor, but from experience, I know a specific word, or combination there of, triggers a physical reaction. That means that those syllabic sounds cause a physical / chemical reaction in your brain and body. PHYSICAL reaction. Experiment time – read the following words and note if you flinch, cringe, smile (physical), or if you feel an emotional twinge (chemical):
- baby crying
- gun shot
- died in a car crash
- spicy hot
Do you have a favorite song, or if you’re a reader like me, a poem or novel that has captured your heart? One that to this day, no matter when you hear it, or read it, it changes your whole mood? I have both a poem and a song. I use them to keep me from using my escape hatch because no matter how I feel, when I read that poem, or listen to that song, I feel significantly uplifted. Even thinking about them brings about a change in me. Does it work that way for you as well? Now tell me words aren’t powerful?
The Difference Between
Anyone who writes copy for a living wields the power in words to elicit a specific reaction in the reader. For example, “news” headlines:
“Its snowing in Atlanta” versus “Rare snow, ice shock the Deep South.”
“A train exploded in Virginia” versus “West Virginia In State Of Emergency After Massive Oil Train Explosion”
“Here are pictures of some baby pigs” versus “Baby Pigs That Will Melt Your Heart & Make Your Day Better”
I could go on and on, but if you read your news feeds, your “walls”, your “reader” list, you will see where words have been carefully chosen and combined in order to peak your interest and elicit a response. In most cases, a harmless click of the mouse, but that’s not always the case.
Words to Weapons
Not quite sure how it came about through the evolution of humans but at some point, white males (later it was white males who believed in Christianity, then white males who believed in Christianity and weren’t homosexual) decided they were the top of the food chain. They made violent work of proving it as they pushed the boundaries of their existence – coming into contact with civilizations that looked nothing like their own. In the course of that process, language was developed and used to perpetrate their dominance. Hence there aren’t any derogatory names or stereotypes associated with straight, white men. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, there are all kinds of words used to remind us that we: are less than, unworthy, undeserving, subservient, etc.
Wikipedia says the original nursery rhyme I mangled in the title above, first appeared the 1860’s, in a publication by the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Hmmm, interesting that it comes about in a Black church at the beginning of the civil war. I would imagine it would come in handy to remind yourself on the daily that words were the least of your problems; let folks call you what they will but be sure to avoid those whips, chains, and other implements you may find your body subjected to. That’s another topic for another post. What I’m getting at here is that the words used to shame work equally as well to dehumanize, making it easier for others to use the proverbial sticks and stones to break some bones – “Oh she’s a slut” = it’s okay to rape her; “Hey, look at that fag” = it’s okay to beat him to death. Extreme cases, but think about the headlines, the speeches you hear politicians / group leaders using as they describe the world around us. Listen to how you may be describing situations – the rhetoric seeps in and shapes the way you think which then shapes the way you go about your day – what products you buy, what political views you endorse, what laws need to be enacted and how they’re enforced, whether or not beheading this or that type of person is okay or not, how you feel about your neighbor even though you have never met them…and most damaging, how you think and feel about yourself. Your concept of self-worth drives how you set boundaries; what you will and won’t allow to happen to you. If someone can use words to convince you that you are less than deserving, then how likely are you to stand up for yourself or others for that matter? I doubt that someone with healthy self-esteem would believe it’s a good idea to blow themselves (and others) up to prove a point…but hey, that’s just me.
I struggle to understand why certain terms have been appropriated making them okay to use as compliments or signs of affection. For example, back when I was a kid, calling a female a “bitch” was tantamount to slapping her across the face. Now? I hear women calling their nearest and dearest friends by that name as if it’s a term of endearment. Female executives wear the title as a badge of honor, touting it as the “quality” that got them to where they are. Young women are running around feeling flattered when someone calls them a “bad bitch”. WTF? Uh no, no, and again, NO. Perhaps I’m old-fashioned, but there is nothing positive you can associate with that term as far as I’m concerned.
Same goes with the word “nigga” and all its derivatives. If it’s derogatory coming from anyone outside the Black community, then to me, it should be just as ugly if not more so, when used within.
No Moral to this Story
Thinking about what sparked this post, I guess some of the biggest believers in the power of words are those that post the comments specifically to create a rise in others. I don’t believe for one second internet trolls don’t know EXACTLY what kind of reactions they’re going to spark with the words they chose to leave behind like fresh piles of dog doo in a public area. I guess my question is why? If you believe in the power of words, why not use that power for good? I mean sheesh, it worked out pretty well for Luke and Clark, eh?