“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” When I was a kid, that children’s chant was a talisman to protect us from the startlingly painful names that kids fling—Fatty, Stinky, Coke-Bottle Bottoms and worse.
But the words stay with us. Yes, I’d rather be called a name than be physically beaten. But because words always exist within conceptual frames, they drag a whole lot of clandestine baggage along with them.
I have recently received several e-mails where the language was injudicious. I’d say unskillful, except I think the writers knew exactly what buttons their words pushed. One referred to having children as “spawning”—an image of mindless reproduction and subsequent abandonment far from the heart-rending reality of parenting. Another mentioned “Darwin at work,” insinuating that those who die because they didn’t get vaccinated are less fit, evolutionarily, and hence expendable. The final e-mail spoke of the B.C. government as a “puppet government,” language which conjures the image of illegitimate regimes propped up by sinister forces.
While we can argue ad nauseum about what we should be doing right now, the fact is that language always carries hidden conceptual frames that shape our thinking. OUR WORDS MATTER.
Propaganda is the name for the tilt to our words, no matter who is doing the tilting. Propaganda separates us from each other, making sticks and stones seem like a good idea. When we litter our speech with innuendo and slurs, it is sneaky, underhanded, and ruthless. Re-read Animal Farm or try Mein Kampf: “Propaganda must not investigate the truth objectively…it must present only that aspect of the truth which is favorable to its own side.”
There are two ways to make community. One is by drawing a line that keeps people out: words that name-call, behaviour that divides. The other way is by drawing a bigger circle: language that invites, actions that include.
It used to be that September meant several thousand of us would head to New Denver for the Garlic Fest. There we would see our neighbors selling produce, or urging us to join local societies, or playing music, or peddling homemade muffins for a good cause. This kind of community gathering, even if we barely speak to anyone, produces a sense of belonging. But we don’t have the Garlic Fest; we don’t have concerts; we’ve been asked not to have harvest fairs or potlucks or memorial services. For the time being, we’ve lost our usual sources of communal connection. We are collectively feeling our way through this up-and-down pandemic: every choice is difficult, the fallout painful. For everyone.
But if we choose to re-kindle our sense of belonging by exclusionary language and assuming the worst of each other, we will lose our community. Just look across the border, if you doubt this.
When we talk about freedom or responsibility these days, can we please speak without sarcasm and censure? “Those people” are our neighbors. Our life together matters.
Sticks and stones follow close on our words.