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Verbal Violence and the American Way

Verbal Violence and the American Way
By Gene Sager

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This famous old adage is, at best, misleading. I believe many of us are sadly confused about the multiple forms of violence in our lives, including the many forms of verbal violence. In this article, I will focus on what I see as a cultural crisis involving the ways we speak to one another. It turns out that “mere words” are not mere words.

Face to Face

My daughter and son are products of the public school system in California, and they are my source of real life examples like this one about Jamie, their fourth grade schoolmate. Jamie was confronted in the crowded hallway by a slight, be-speckled classmate. Jamie often impersonated his classmate by making pretend glasses with his fingers circled in front of his eyes. One day, when Jamie again mocked the “glasses boy,” the smaller student surprised everyone. In a civil but firm tone, he said, “Why do you have to bully others?” Jamie was caught off guard. With no “cool” comeback to retort, he shouted in the most demeaning tone he could muster: “F*** you!”

Verbal violence is using words with the explicit intent to hurt another person by forcing them to endure harm which may leave non-physical scars. Jamie learned to “handle” situations like this by listening to his parents argue. Jamie’s parents used violent language when angry at him as well. So the sad irony is that Jamie carries built-up resentments because he was scarred by abusive language and he now takes it out on his peers. The very words he detested at home are the ones he uses in speaking to his schoolmates. The hurtful language is recycled.

The basis of my concern is not merely anecdotal. Experienced researchers like Priesnitz, Lansbury, and Knost report that the pattern is epidemic. Researchers find that violent language is transferred from parents to children and from the children to their peers and from their generation to the next. The alternative, sometimes called “conscious parenting,” calls for civil language, even when parents are firm or strict. Conscious parents do not call their child or their action “stupid.” A child who throws a tantrum is not called a “monster.”

Whether we are parents or not, we are armed with hurtful verbal weapons, and the social norms today give us license to use them more and more liberally. When frustrated or angry, we may “vent”, as we say, or fire our weapons at others. If one angry brother calls his brother an “idiot” or “bastard,” this is a hurtful shot fired. Later, the cliche, “I didn’t mean what I said” is a lame excuse and does not remove the scar. Though we may assume such name calling can be “sloughed off” or forgotten, the mind retains a fissure without closure.

Electronic Insults

Social critics have already alerted us to the problem of foul and abusive language used on social media. Some websites claim to assess users, screen out abusers, and delete demeaning words instantly. But clearly the situation is quite complicated and cannot be corrected by simple technological detection and deletion.

Observers of American culture hoped that the shocking case of thirteen-year-old Megan Meier in 2007 would reduce the cyberbullying that caused Megan’s suicide. It was a classic case in the Myspace age. Myspace rules did not prevent the Meier family’s adult neighbors from communicating with Megan as a hot sixteen-year-old boy named Josh Evans. Josh never existed, but to Megan he was real. For reasons that are still unclear, Josh began to sound indifferent and even mean. He rebuffed Megan’s pleas and wound up calling her a slut.

All indications are that instead of abating, abusive language is increasing on social media and the associated suicides increase with it. Zoe Johnston of Wyoming, Michigan, also thirteen years old, killed herself in July, 2015 because she was berated by extremely demeaning words on social media.

Part of the problem is the distance or even anonymity of the social media. A posted comment can deliver a devastating attack and yet the source may be fake or unknown. We can exchange hurtful words with people we never meet. The already liberal use of violent language is even more relaxed with distance and anonymity. Psychologists call this the disinhibition effect and the worst of the abusers are called trolls – some young, some old enough to know better but who still go on line to bash others. Our highly advanced culture has produced brutes. The current, quirky temperament encourages abusive language for venting, making a crude joke, or adding potency to a statement or stand. Oddly, violent words seem to express a “cool bravado.”

Toxic Air

A colleague of mine, a psychologist, has researched the phenomenon of American talk radio. It has a “timbre” or tone which is consistently strident. And in this medium, the best argument is the one that excels in belittling or mocking the opposing views. Hateful words are broadcast abroad on talk radio and other media, and, like smog, they create an unhealthy atmosphere. Abusive language has become pervasive. Even politicians have achieved a new high in low level language.

Perhaps less blatant but of increasing concern is abusive language on the job. The personnel director at St. Anthony North Hospital outside Denver says that most cases are peer-to-peer bullying. These cases are often not reported because employees would rather endure the pain of hurtful language than the pain of job loss. A host of organizations (National Labor Relations Board, the Department of Labor, and the Workplace Bullying Institute) try to monitor and correct the problem. I say, more power to these policing efforts; but we should also know that the root of the problem is something that is at once deeper and broader: It is what I have called “cultural license” or a cultural crisis which results in permissive use of abusive words. And we still want to believe they are “mere” words.

Armed and Dangerous

The arms we all carry with us are weapons of various types – some gross and some subtle, such as veiled sarcasm and a mocking tone. They are a battery of hurtful words. The cultural license mentioned above means we are licensed to use these weapons. We have left no doubt here how dangerous our weapons are, but the sad irony is this: The greatest danger is that most of us are not convinced that these weapons are really dangerous. Actually, our language is positively rich. Our words can be stern or strict; we can disagree, debate, and fight for justice. All in a civil manner. And our words can comfort, encourage, show compassion and good humor.

In sum, words can be weapons or instruments of good will. Words can hurt or heal.

Gene Sager is Professor of Environmental Ethics at Palomar College in San Marcos, California.


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