“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!”
Have you ever wondered what complete idiot came up with that? Apparently the definitive origin of the proverb is unknown, but its first “printed” form is found in “Folk Phrases of Four Counties” copyright (1894) by G.F. Northall. So, unfortunately, the finger of accusation will have to retract from its pointing stance as we continue to pass these seemingly timeless words of ignorance on to our offspring. Sure, it seems like a harmless childhood taunt. The proverb could even from some perspectives be considered a defense mechanism against verbal assail. Or, we can see it for what it truly is; an ineffective attempt to diminish the potentially harmful power of words.
Every time I hear our proverb in question spoken, a rush of thoughts goes through my mind. Sure, I understand its intentions, but the path to destruction as we all very well know is virtually paved in good intentions. Sure I understand also that the phrase could be used as a sort of mantra for children being verbally abused by their peers. But honestly, when has fervent recitation of “Sticks and Stones” ever accomplished much more than provoking further laughter and or ridicule? My thoughts always lead me to the consideration that indeed words do hurt far worse than sticks or stones. Cruel words may not break bones, but they can quickly cut and bruise the ego or the conscience, causing wounds for which such whimsical sayings serve as a very poor salve.
Consider in this article about words what the Christian Bible has to say about their use. The Book of James, Chapter 3 refers to the tongue, or, moreover, what the tongue speaks, as being full of all destruction, calamity and fire. The writings consider words, language, what is spoken, to have the potential of all things harmful and cruel. What hurts worse than a lie? What cuts you more deeply than criticism? What enrages your ire more vehemently than unfair or prejudicial accusations?
Words can in fact hurt; a lot. Even when you try to ignore what has been said, the fact that the words were spoken can cause you to challenge what you know to be true. A quick retort or an abashing correction can lead some people to a fast downward spiral of self-doubt long before they remember “Sticks and Stones”. Douglas Adams wrote in his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy that, “Nothing travels faster than bad news.” Words are important. How they are used is crucial to both success and failure. And they do their damage with such speed and accuracy! I wonder if word-weapons would ultimately decide the whole Pirates vs Ninjas debate.
Language is an essential tool, but like all tools developed for good causes, it has potential for misuse. We don’t, however, stop using or developing better tools. Language should be no different. Considering the levity of what you say before you say it is paramount to improving every aspect of your life. We like to think we have fair control over the language we use even as it changes all around us on a continual basis. Words that were once offensive become acceptable. Words that were once assigned to describing beauty become words of aberrance.
Cultures and sub-cultures are practically defined by their choice of alliterations. As you gain proficiency with a society’s language, you are able to function better there, augment your living conditions there, even contribute or bring about change. Without proper protocol you will find yourself limited or insufficient. Thus one of the first acts one takes in a new land is to familiarize one’s self with the vernacular there. That goes for Virtual Realms and online communities as well.
As you begin making introductions in Second Life, you will right away discover countless avatars with endless variations to appearance. Some will chat in voice, others in text, still others in a combination of the two. Some will throw off particles, others will drink blood, while still more pretend to be little children, pets, animals or demons. In SL you are presented with a veritable cornucopia of reasons to trash, bash, abuse, hate or segregate yourself from others. Some take on derogatory names to point at their RL choices or lifestyles. Some take on the same or similar names as a part of attacking or bringing shame to others. Most of what is imaginable is found in SL. You must be prepared to be tolerant or you will find yourself keying in many ugly remarks.
Regardless of what people “think”, the words they use have a terrible impact they seldom consider. And just as you have no right to throw a rock at someone you don’t like, or shoot to kill someone in SL because they wear a furry avatar, you also should not have the right to assault someone verbally. These things should not enjoy tolerance. A change is needed instead.
The fact of the matter is that if you change the language of a culture, you inherently change the culture itself. Still, an old word used in a new way evokes old feelings in those for whom the meanings have not changed. No matter our endeavor, we cannot erase a past filled with hate without erasing it entirely from fact, but trying to transform the terms of that past doesn’t help either; those old terms just remind us of pain and define us by our mistakes.
One fine example of language modification and transliteration would be the word “faggot”. In Old English terms, a faggot was merely a bundle of dried grass or sticks that was often used to kindle a bonfire. The idea that the bundle was otherwise completely useless led the way to the word later referring to something whose only purpose was for burning. The term “fag” carries over to today in England as an equivalent term for the cigarette in the United States. However, in the United States, the term “fag” or “faggot” is a pejorative term for a homosexual. Consider though that the intrinsic meaning of the word has not changed as it was adopted to define homosexuals as worthless, robbed of humanity, only good for burning.
Why is it we are still able to find the same stereotypes and the same vicious idealisms in a global community such as Second Life? Another reality is that even the perambulation of thought is affected by command of language. Who we are inside will indelibly come forth in SL, using our words, our voices, our prejudices. Will we care less because our targets appear digital or will we hesitate just long enough to see the user behind the avatar?
On the converse of this is the diminishment of word-meaning. Euphemisms are conjured whenever limitations in understanding are challenged by the extreme nature of a subject or issue. By example, drawing upon our earlier one, in the United States, the word “fag” is now considered less “politically correct” than the word “gay”. To be gay in the US once meant one was demonstratively happy or bouncy of gait. Usually someone of a gay sort would have been either a subject of merriment or one of the laughable. This was a far more acceptable underlying meaning than the more destructive hate alternative, “faggot”. Or was it? Perhaps it is better if only because it is easier to tolerate something one can mock rather than fully hate; not to mention less harmful physically to those wearing the letter.
Another example I like to pose is that of the phrase “Shell Shock”. Many aren’t even familiar with this anymore. Shell Shock was a violent emotional condition suffered by soldiers in World War I and II which derived from long term exposure to life-threatening situations and killing. Over time, and in later wars, the exact same “condition” began to be referred to as Battle Fatigue, Combat Fatigue. At times the condition was assigned as a neurosis, indicated by the uncontrolled hysteria and hallucinations accompanying the condition. Battle Fatigue, War Weariness, Combat Fatigue, all seems somehow less important than Shell Shock. The terms are softer, take longer to say, and effectively diminish the condition. Ultimately, the last permutation of Shell Shock was “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder”. Now the individual is malfunctioning. They have a disorder, whether inherited or accrued. The blame is now on the individual for not being able to cope with extreme situations. And stress is certainly a lot less important than shock.
The same principles apply to society in Second Life (SL) and similar VR’s. SL is a realm of words; written, spoken, graphically designed and digitally enhanced. Many studies have suggested that what is typed in a chat room is typically read as having a more serious tone than intended. What we say online (or type) is just as meaningful as what is written or said in real life. The same social and cultural stigmas follow colloquial, slang and hate terms all the way into our virtual lives as well. We start grouping all forms of unacceptable action under the term “grief”. We eventually deal with the grief so often that we begin to overlook it and just accept it. Or in some cases you can change your avatar in hopes of avoiding some of the grief at the sacrifice of being yourself.
Finally, we are only responsible for what we say and how we say it. Sometimes things are going to come out wrong no matter what. Sometimes others will unexpectedly respond to what we say. They may become angry. You may need to apologize for something you never intended. And sometimes, the only way to escape the embroilment of an errant tongue is to grin cautiously, throw your hands up in the air just a bit, and encapsulate your faux pas with a hearty, “I’m only sayin’!” Then somehow, everything is all better.
The sagely proverb applies everywhere, to be slow to speak and quick to listen. Recognizing those around you before you speak helps everyone. Samuel Clemmens is quoted as having said, “Tis better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid than to open it and remove all doubt.” The same applies to intolerance or careless conversation. In SL, it can be occasionally easy to forget that there are others nearby that might be listening in.
I encourage you as always in closing to keep on loving one another. Keep lifting one another up. The only way to truly lose is to do nothing at all. So fight to keep your language. Put away the cold words of the past and identify yourself by your future; by your potential. And don’t allow weak euphemisms to replace the truth nor your determination to make a positive difference in both SL and RL.