Do you remember the childhood rhyme that goes like this: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”? I do…but the older I’ve gotten, the more I realize that the rhyme has it backwards. Words can hurt…sometimes more than sticks and stones.
What we say has power–power to heal or power to inflict severe (and lasting) damage and to divide. We don’t have to look far to find out the truth of that.
We can look sometimes within our own families. How do we speak to our children? Do we tell them they’re valued? that they can become whatever they want? Or do we tell them they’re stupid? that they’re dumb? Those tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies.
I’ve been reading a couple of books recently on World War II and the Holocaust–and part of what helped make that possible was the use of words. They were used to separate people…the Jews became “the other”…”subhuman”…and once they were no longer seen as human beings, as people of worth, it became easier to identify them as enemies of the state, as “something” that needed to be destroyed for the good of the country.
It’s easy to look at that and think that in the United States, we would never be part of a situation like that. But let’s not kid ourselves. I grew up during Vietnam–and I remember hearing the Vietnamese described using racially negative words. Again, that made it easier to see them as “the other”–as of less value than we ourselves. And we are still struggling with the residue of another time in our history when we saw people who were different from us as “subhuman.” I can remember hearing racial slurs being considered an acceptable part of speech when referring to African-Americans…and seeing horrible pictures of lynchings…of dogs being turned on teenagers…of fire hoses being directed at peaceful protesters…of people standing with guns to keep out those who wanted a decent education.
We’re still doing it–dividing people into “us” and “them.” They’re different from us and we don’t understand them…nor do we seem to want to try to understand them. It doesn’t matter who the “them” is–it’s anyone who doesn’t look like us…who doesn’t act like us…whose sexual orientation is different from what is seen as “normal”…whose differs with us politically…who doesn’t speak the same language or practice the same religion we do…
“There exists, for everyone, a sentence – a series of words – that has the power to destroy you. Another sentence exists, another series of words, that could heal you. If you’re lucky you will get the second, but you can be certain of getting the first.”
― Philip K. Dick, VALIS
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could make sure everyone gets the second sentence? I wonder what our world would be like then…