Sticks and Stones: Name-Calling Does Hurt
By J. Roger Wilson, ©May, 2006
Our family moved, and I started the third grade at a new school. I rode a bus from the country to a small city school. I was a stranger among the town kids and didn’t fit in. To make matters worse, I loved school and books. The nickname someone gave me was far worse, to me anyway, than “geek” or “nerd.” I couldn’t wait to graduate and leave for a college where no one would use that name. I’ve known for a long time that “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me” wasn’t completely true. Names can hurt; because they break your heart. Name-calling has become too much an ugly part of American life that needs to change.
As a mediator, I insist that parties agree not to call each other names. Most people realize that rational conversation stops when name-calling begins. In fact, calling someone a derogatory name is a tactic that shows that a disagreement has escalated into a full-fledged war. Names like “Kraut,” “Jap,” “Gook.” and “Rag-head” aren’t considered prejudiced on the battlefield. They enable an otherwise civilized soldier to objectify an enemy in order to be able to kill him. Labels have a similar purpose in conflict. They imply that an adversary is only evil. The goal is to render the opponent effectively dead. For good reason, parents forbid name-calling. Clearly, civilized adults shouldn’t do it!
Names can be good or bad for children. Ask just about anyone what they consider their strengths or weaknesses and why, and you will discover they trace back to names or labels that have stuck in their memories since childhood. “You’re just like your father” can literally be a blessing or a curse depending on whether his wife thought him a saint or a jerk. My Dad once said that I shoveled corn like “an old washer woman!” I was a young teenager and wasn’t very strong or fast. Of course, I had muscles not yet fully developed, and I had never shoveled much corn before! His words bothered me for years, long after he had died. He never saw the man I became. In time, though, I figured out that he probably never meant those words. He just had a big job to do; he was tired and frustrated at the time and effort he had to give it. Eventually, I came to see and accept other indications of his love and positive regard, but that one remark shaped my self-image for a long time.
Insulting names devastate marriages. Wise people learn not to speak them in a moment of anger. In fact, it’s better to say, “I feel,” than to label the thoughts and intentions of anyone, especially someone you love. Unfortunately, many people use vulgar names freely, and they are easy to find on the tip of the tongue. Once words like “bitch” and “bastard” fly back and forth, no one is likely to be able to discuss legitimate concerns. Once spoken, vile names linger and echo in memory; apologies don’t clear them away. Typically, people suspect that a word spoken in moment of anger reveals that person’s true feelings.
Names and labels have a chilling effect on free speech, often intentional. Political debate and religious dialog both suffer when a person or idea is branded with a term like radical or extreme. “Fundamentalist” began as a religious slur, which the targets accepted with pride, since they indeed believed in basic, historic Christian “fundamentals.” Now, of course, people often use it simply to mean extremist of any religion, even violent. “Racist,” “bigot,” “homophobe,” “fascist,” and even “Hitler” are easier to say than to respond fairly to an opposing point of view or discuss an issue honestly. As political conservatives have gained a voice and audience, they have responded with “feminazi,” “tree-hugger,” and “environmental wacko,” often because liberals meet more rational discussion with more attacks. As I said earlier, this is the language of war—culture war, religious war, domestic war, or armed combat. Most people respond to any kind of attack by shooting back, whether it’s with their gun or their mouth.
Isn’t it ironic that many who claim to advocate peace so easily use the language of war? To advocate peace with words of war shows how little they understand the peacemaking process. Even more ironic, they wage war with fellow Americans while demanding peace with enemies with whom they would seem to have far less in common. This leads to an important observation. Name-calling reveals more about the caller than the called.
Using negative names and labels is a ploy that people use because they cannot use reason and logical argument. Like using other weapons, name-calling gives the caller a kind of power that they feel they need because they are afraid. They doubt the strength of their own position, fear their adversaries have a stronger or more attractive case to make, and have concluded they cannot win in the arena of ideas. For parents and spouses, frustration from an inability to control their child or mate tempts them to use powerful but negative words. The result is neither control nor a better relationship. For an activist or politician, the lure is power through propaganda; if they and their allies repeat certain negative labels often enough perhaps gullible or inattentive listeners will believe them.
Too often, their power is effective simply because most people care what other people think. Name-calling makes some people give up their principled beliefs. For example, a person might oppose affirmative action in hiring or college admissions because it favors less qualified applicants who are minorities. They believe doing so is racially-based and illegal. They also think that such practices imply that minorities are incapable of succeeding on merit. Right or not, these are thoughtful arguments and worthy of discussion. Sadly, the discussion often ends when the views and those holding them are called “racist!” It takes a great deal of courage to continue to advocate a position while people call you a racist, even if genuinely believe that your views are not!
How do we diminish the prevalence of name-calling? How should we respond when our opponents use negative labels? To start, we all need to re-affirm that name-calling is never an appropriate behavior among civilized people. I think phrases such as “my esteemed colleague across the aisle” and “the learned opposition” need to be said and meant. These are superior to phony calls for bipartisanship, which usually mean, “Yield your position to ours!” as the first President Bush learned the hard way. The Democrats rewarded his willingness to allow them to raises taxes, in the spirit of bipartisanship, by later accusing him of breaking his “Read my lips! No new taxes!” promise. We need to restore good sportsmanship and do away with “trash talk,” in sports and in politics.
Of course, this means we need to stop name-calling ourselves. This is tough. In this era of negative talk, almost everyone tends to be less polite and less civil. We tend to want respect but often fail to give it to others, especially our opponents. I try to say words like “jerk” and “idiot” only in places where no one can hear them or only among friends (referring to others, of course!). Is that wrong? Does my thinking a name mean that I have less respect for that person? I think so, and I suspect that is a problem. Of course, it’s better to say them privately than to say them publicly or in their face.
Along with guarding our own thoughts and words, we need to encourage our friends and allies to do the same. Whether preferences lean toward Michael Savage or Al Franken, we must try to promote more civil dialog. I happen to agree with Savage’s basic positions, but I refused to buy his latest book, The Political Zoo, for its flagrant name-calling. I found Al Franken’s Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Lies and the Lying Liars who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right equally distasteful. Admittedly, humor can be a harmless way to poke fun at the quirks of others, and I don’t mind comedians who are as likely to caricaturize one party as the other. I thought the first President Bush was a good sport to join Dana Carvey, who mimicked him, on TV. However, some so-called humor is simply vicious name-calling and not funny at all.
Finally, the targets of name-calling must not let the abuse succeed in its intent. Ronald Reagan stayed true to his convictions and won respect from many of his opponents. Bill Clinton, on the other hand, seemed to whine and complain when his almost adolescent escapades made him a target, and even his political allies pulled away from him. Furthermore, although political campaigns have often been willing to engage in smear tactics, his party has raised the “politics of personal destruction” to new heights, beginning with Judge Robert Bork’s nomination hearing in the Senate. As a result, many good people choose to avoid the spotlight, even when asked. I don’t blame them, but I would like to encourage more “good people” to take the risk and face the unfair opposition with courage. Somehow, we must convince the name-callers that their tactics are no longer effective, so that they will return to a more civilized and rational method for discussing and resolving differences.
I eventually took the risk of telling about the name-calling I experienced as a young person. I told the story to teenagers to help them see how easily their cruel words could hurt. I have spent enough of my life in the spotlight to have some experience with unfair names and criticism. I don’t enjoy, by any means. I have had the occasion to have others share their similar experiences, and I often ask the same question, “Is what they say true?” Knowing that the names people use are untrue and understanding why they use them makes them much easier to bear. In the meantime, I think we all need to be careful of what names we use. Like bullets, they hurt when they hit us, and the pain sometimes lasts for a very long time.