Words Matter!

Many people in OneOldCop’s generation grew up hearing,“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” This, or some variation of it, was a standard response from parents and others when a child came home crying or upset because someone called them a name or used a hurtful term to refer to the child.

Today, we are much more aware of the power words have to hurt someone. Either that or the failure of parents to teach their children the little saying above has created several generations of thin-skinned crybabies. Whatever the reality, there is a problem with the old adage. A problem that has nothing to do with the fact young people today often need safe spaces and Play-Doh to deal with the world.

Certainly, each of us has a choice about how to respond when assaulted with thoughtless words or outright verbal abuse. We can, as in times past, simply try to ignore it, or if that is not possible, there are places one can seek help to deal with the consequences of such taunting or bullying. The problem arises when one becomes the victim of an assault or other crime, because of the thoughtless words of others.

Someone trying to create an adage similar to the sticks and stones saying of old would face a problem today. Today, the adage might need to go something like this, “Stick, stones, baseball bats, bricks, Molotov cocktails, and other weapons may hurt me, and the hateful words of others may kill me!”

In 1992, OneOldCop published an article in Law and Order discussing the danger inherent in the way we speak of others. The piece targeted the law enforcement community, but the principles upon which it was based apply to everyone.1

The basic principle is simple. The use of certain words to describe a person, a person’s actions, or a group of people can lead to a form of conditioning in the minds of those using or hearing the words. This concept is nothing new, but it has been traditionally attached to issues of racism and discrimination.

There is little doubt that a child raised in a home, or general environment, where one group of people is referred to in less than flattering ways will learn to identify them the same way. Race, gender and other characteristics normally identified with racism and discrimination have no bearing on the matter.

Take the centuries old conflict in Ireland. There people groups that have lived on the same island for centuries, have turned the labels Protestant and Catholic into hate speech. The same can be true in other cultures where labels such as Sunni and Shia carry distasteful connotations similar to words used to describe people of color in the United States in times past.

In 1992 police trainers, executives and administrators were trying to find ways to change the language of police officers so they would see the people they handled as human beings instead of some form of subhuman life. While some may feel the efforts of police leadership did not bear fruit, that is simply not true. The vast majority of police officers are professional and objective. The problem now is the very same people who were trying to control cops during the turbulence of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s are the ones who need to watch their language.

As this is being written, pundits and politicians continue to talk of political rhetoric. They want the political rhetoric toned down because it is driving people over the edge. It is true, the rhetoric is out of control, but the reason it is out of control is the way words are being used in the rhetorical outbursts.

The fellow who spent months plotting to kill Republican Congressmen did not take his actions because of political rhetoric. He armed himself and hunted down members of Congress because the words used to describe these officials were influencing him the way words can influence a police officer.

Police officers who mistreat or overreact to the people with whom they deal do so because they do not see them as people. They see them as scumbags, pukes or some other colorful term that dehumanizes them. Now, their bosses, the politicians who want to lead the country or the local government, engage in the same name calling.

The man who attempted to kill multiple Congressmen in Virginia was not making a political statement. He was hunting down those deplorable, Republican haters who were ruining his country. The problem is he did not dream up those ideas on his own. They were shouted from the campaign platforms of his party, and are still being spouted by talking heads and political hacks.

Political rhetoric can be uplifting, depressing or enraging. Yet, political rhetoric does not bring an otherwise sane man to a ball field in Virginia where he intends to assassinate elected officials. Labeling is what brings someone to commit such an act. Those were not elected officials he was attempting to kill. They were Deplorables. They were haters. They were crooks who were stealing money from old people and children. They were the corrupt capitalists standing in the way of the Leftist dream of socialized medicine and a guaranteed income.

Words, and the way they are used, matter. Everyone with a public platform needs to remember that, no matter which side of the aisle they inhabit.

  1. Law and Order online archives do not include 1992.  Article available through National Coalition Building Institute.

About S. Eric Jackson

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