20 Jul Why Sticks and Stones Do Break Bones and Words Cause Serious Harm
As a writer, I’ve always loved words and understood how powerful they can be. Recently, I’ve started to notice how common the misconception is that people can only be harmed physically (by something tangible like sticks and stones) and not by words alone, as the age-old idiom suggests.
While words may be more abstract than other weapons of violence, they act as a mirror and what they reflect is not illusion but reality.
Just because you can’t always see something, doesn’t mean that thing ceases to exist. Much like privilege and emotional abuse, for example. Over the past few years I’ve become increasingly aware of how easily people toss words around and what makes people feel comfortable (read: entitled) enough to do so. I’m going to unpack this as best as I can, so please bear with me.
Audre Lorde once said that there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives. That is why it’s necessary that we examine underlying power dynamics as part of this conversation and any conversation. Therefore in every interaction, we must take into regard positionality.
“In cultural accounts of experience, positionality refers to both the fact of and the specific conditions of a given social situation. So, where one might talk about the “position” of an individual in a social structure, “positionality” draws attention to the conditions under which such a position arises, the factors that stabilise that position, and the particular implications of that position with reference to the forces that maintain it.” – IGI Global.
In order for us to assess the damage caused by words, we first need to understand who is speaking them. If you are a person in a position of power, naturally your words will be heard more than someone with less power. This is due to the fact that power is often what grants people the ability to have a voice and to be heard as well as acknowledged within our society. We can’t pretend that everyone on this planet has the same voice because that would be inaccurate. Think about ageism, for example, and how it’s socially accepted and reinforced – children’s voices are not heard because we are taught that the voice of elders should always be respected regardless of what they are saying.
People from dominant groups are, by default, given the microphone while people from marginalised groups are actively censored and policed to ensure that they are not vocal about their oppression. That is how our society upholds itself as a kyriarchy (i.e. a social system that exists to keep current oppressive systems firmly in place) and ensures that systemic oppression continues.
Privilege does not just give people louder voices, but freedom as well as protection. The harmful ideas people hold (whether racist, misogynistic, fatphobic, transphobic or otherwise) which stem from the kyriarchy and its teachings are usually so normalised that anyone who takes offense to them is disregarded as “overly-sensitive” rather than oppressed. Being held accountable for oppressive behaviour (even if it’s “unintentional”) is uncomfortable and having to choose one’s words carefully requires a certain amount of emotional labour. When you are privileged, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that discomfort and constant emotional labour are daily realities for marginalised people trying to exist in this world.
Even well-intentioned words can cause harm or perpetuate our oppressive ideals. After all, intention does not outweigh impact. For example, you may look at me and want to pay me a compliment on my physical appearance so you say, “Oh, you are looking so good; you’ve lost so much weight!” thinking that weight loss is something that I aspire to without realising that what you’ve said feeds directly into fatphobia. Something which I as a fat womxn experience every single day. In that way, you have caused me pain even while thinking you were doing me a kindness.
Another example of how words can be used to cause harm and uphold oppression is through humour. Because words are a byproduct of our values, it’s easy to see what values society holds through the humour and language that it entertains. Black jokes? Acceptable. Fat jokes? What a laugh. Gay jokes? With pleasure. Feminist jokes? Keep them coming. Trans jokes? Sure. But jokes about men? Misandry. Jokes about whiteness? Reverse racism. Jokes about cisgender people? Breeding hatred. You see, not all jokes are made equal but every joke has a victim – the person or thing that joke is making fun of.
If we are to maintain the idea that many forms of oppression exist in our society and affect different people differently, we’re more able to understand that some people face more oppression than others and are subjected to more suffering. We also have to remember that there is a vast difference between calling out oppression, such as a cisgender person ridiculing trans people, and silencing oppressed people for expressing anger. Anger is not the same thing as prejudice, bias or hatred but rather the result of these things.’
For example, many white folk in South Africa took offense to posters bearing the words “F**k White People” which formed part of an art exhibition called The Art of Disruptions. So much so that The Cape Party filed a restraint against the Iziko South African National Gallery for exhibiting “hate speech” and “racism.” However, Magistrate Thulare dismissed the case in court because the Judge said that reactionaries to the work assumed the role of victims. Those who were offended failed to acknowledge the circumstances which led to the creation of the artwork thereby erasing black pain. White people were not put in danger by the words “F**k White People” because racism, which was created by white people to benefit white folk, is still institutionalised.
What is ironic is that many of the people who found this artwork to be “hate speech” seem to be the same people who are upset by the fact that they feel they have to “police” themselves and their wording in order to be deemed “politically correct.” Are these not the same people who mainstreamed memes like “triggered” and words like “SJW” and “feminazi?” Being careful with our words is something that we should all be doing already; it’s not a novelty but a responsibility. That is if we care about the well-being of other humans.
It’s easy to believe that words can just be “shrugged off” or that jokes should just be “laughed at” and discarded when you are not being oppressed by the same words or the reality that these words reflect. Our society teaches us that it’s okay to use words to trivialise “serious” things. We don’t exercise empathy, even when someone tells us we have hurt them, not because we all lack the ability to be empathetic but because our privileges have taught us that we don’t have to be. Freedom of speech has become a paradox in which it’s constantly being reiterated by bigots and oppressors to justify hate speech and abuse and, at the same time, it’s not regarded as something which everyone can partake in without being called “too fragile” or a “snowflake.”
Cover image: Olivia Howitt.