Monday, January 24, 2011

Post No. 153: Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones (Rated “C” for “Children Only)

© 2011, the Institute for Applied Common Sense

Since we started writing about personal responsibility in April of 2008, many have suggested that our approach is far too simplistic and child-like.

We frequently refer to sayings by “old folks” uttered “back in the day,” or bits of parental advice, e.g., “If you can’t say something nice about someone, say nothing at all.”

Sometimes we actually have to stop and ask whether the principles suggested are (1) universally and consistently true; (2) only capable of application in certain situations; or (3) applicable simply when the person choosing to use them finds it convenient.

Some of you may recall, “Sticks and stones may break my bones; but words will never hurt me.”

Over the years, we’ve generally been members of the Sticks and Stones School of Thought (originally known as the Turn the Other Cheek School). In our view, targets of racial slurs, inappropriate jokes, sexist comments and such might justifiably be offended, but should simply ignore the offending idiots and move right along. After all, with few exceptions, the offending speech is protected speech.

To some extent, our devotion to this school of thought stems from growing up in the South during the late 1940s and 1950s as a survival technique.

We’ve felt the same regarding symbols, like the Confederate flag. All the time spent organizing an anti-flag rally, traveling to and from the offending state, and participating in the rally, might be better spent generating income – income which could be used for scholarships for poor kids. Education makes people better equipped to prove their worth and value in society, despite what others might think.

We always recognized that our view did not apply to adult – child relationships, or perhaps adult, interpersonal relationships. Constant criticism and hostility in those relationships can potentially inflict long-term, emotional damage.

Where things get a little fuzzy is when the clamor and acrimony are in the public arena, and not directed at specific individuals, or are of a political nature.

During the debate following the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, we wondered about the role that, what some described as the poisonous, acrimonious state of political discourse, may have played. However, we initially felt that the acts of someone suffering from mental instability could not possibly be connected to a sufficient degree for the discussion to even continue.

That is until one of our readers, SmallFootprints, sent us a post by another blogger, whose blog is The River Wanders… but is never lost. In the article, entitled Campaign Silent, the author argues that an environment has been carefully crafted where violence is the new norm. The author goes on to note:

“Does one word, one sign, one blogged paragraph incite violence? Probably [italics in original] not. But I’m not talking about one careless word, one careless sign, one careless comment, one carelessly blogged paragraph. The sheer volume of hate-speech today is accessible and acceptable and toxic and seductive and probably does [italics in original] incite violence. The truth is this: the crazy is out there – the mentally ill who hear inappropriate sentiment as a call to action, the bitterly angry who don’t care who they hurt as long as we share their pain, and the disenfranchised coteries whose groupthink becomes their way of life. To all of us, but especially [italics in original] to these unique populations, language matters. Words matter. Images matter. Message matters.”

While we do not agree with everything the author has to say, and reading it did not convince us to pick up our toys and leave the playground, the piece forced us to re-visit our position.

There was something else we considered about the power of words and the environment in which they operate. For the past several weeks, the History Channel has been re-airing its series on The Third Reich. They chronicle the regime’s rise to power in the 1930s.

Throughout, before rolling film of the atrocities committed by Nazi troops, there appears a screen with simple words used as propaganda to urge the troops to proceed, and to justify the cruelty to the general population.

Arguably, we all have a responsibility to carefully consider the words that we spew out into the Universe, and the potential consequences when people hear them. It’s been said that, “All is fair in love and war,” and perhaps politics. That may not be the case with respect to public discourse.

And, although we, the Fellows of the Institute, may not be personally concerned about less than civil words hurled at us on an individual level (and we are not motivated to act on those words), we now appreciate that there may be others out there for whom words have a different effect.


  1. A thoughtful review. For me, the final analysis is that the constant reaffirmation of ideas does, in fact, lead persons to consider what they think about those ideas. In the extreme some will be motivated to act--positively or negatively. Some will go back to sleep (as did Europe as the Nazis slipped into their countries). The immediacy with which our thoughts (words) are conveyed to the broader community make it all the more important for those of us who use words for our "official" communication to choose them carefully and support them with facts, not hyperbole.
    Thanks for your thoughtful use of words.

  2. Excellent! Yes, I can "turn the other cheek" ... but I also realize that there are many who can't (or won't) ... and that is frightening.

  3. Many of my generation, the children of the civil rights movement were told to turn the other cheek. We did for the most part because we saw that any other action could be hurtful to our already disenfranchised parents. But, as I was also a child of the 60's and living in the Bay Area, my ideas of turning the other cheek, also meant,that I had to fight back, physically if necessary to confront those that confronted me with slurs and character assinations. Today's climate is fraught with hate speech and as a society, as black and diverse folk, we have allowed it to happen. I won't tolerate it,didn't in Berkeley in the late 60's and I won't now. There is a price to pay for "yelling fire" in a crowded room.

  4. I will take the opposing view. Yes, on an individual basis, vicious words can spark violence. Call me enough names and I just might punch you in the nose.And, yes, enough constant propaganda might cause people to inflict harm on certain groups of people or, at least, ignore the harm being done.

    But we have something called Freedom of Speech in this country. So I would argue that each of us, if we are concerned about violent speech, not engage in it. Who knows? It might catch on. I would also suggest that we very objectively listen to where the "hate speech" is coming from. Make sure that words attributed someone are really what was said by that person (check numerous sources), make sure we don't just assume it is coming from one side.

    You might convince me of the argument against social acceptance/tolerance of violent speech (or "hate" speech, if you will) if you will attribute the recent spate of police deaths to it. You see, the police are constantly treated to hate speech, constantly targeted as "jack-booted thugs" among many worse epithets. Following the "hate speech breeds violence" theory, we would have to blame the execution of a cop in New Jersey, the shooting of one in Oregon, the shooting of one in Indiana, the 5 (one died) in Detroit, and so on. But I suspect those shootings, that particular violence, hasn't appeared on your radar.

  5. Real Brother here.

    If Racists don't want to take responsibility for what they say and who gets killed while they tout their 1st and 2nd Amendment Rights then they should lose those 1st and 2nd Amendment Rights.


  6. Thanks much Dan, and we hope that your New Year has been good to you thus far.

    What struck us in generating this piece, and in reading your comment and those of others, is true complexity of the issue, and how situational it can be in nature. You focused on a factor which we had not considered before, that being the "immediacy" of the communication.

  7. SmallFootprints:

    Thanks again for directing us to the article which made us look at this issue through a different lens.

    Always looking at an issue through our traditional lens, or the lens that works best for us, does not always reveal a clear, accurate, or true picture. Maybe what we see, hear, feel, smell, or think is somewhat like the truth, rarely plain and never simple.

  8. Anonymous:

    Taking much for weighing in. Although your comment was relatively brief, you brought up so many other factors which we had not considered, further suggesting the complexity of this issue.

    First you mentioned the time / timing factor. Next you referred to what we might call the collective, societal factor. You then brought into play the consideration of people close to us, namely our parents.

    In another place, you spoke individuality and the need to express oneself, or even protect or defend one's self.

    Finally, we mentioned the "yelling fire in a crowded room" issue which we had intended to explore in our piece, but simply did not have the time or space.

    At this juncture, our pile of sticks and stones is really beginning to crumple.

    Thanks and do return again.

  9. Douglas:

    Like several others, you made a number of very good points which we had not considered previously.

    You also brought up something else which we had not thoroughly flushed out, namely the constantly escalating nature of some back and forth exchanges which ultimately result in a shouting match or poisonous environment if repeated enough, and even morph from a different of opinion regarding goals and approaches to personal attacks.

    Good points. Thanks.

  10. Real Brother:

    Welcome, and please come back again.

    Interesting point. It sounds as if you are suggesting that if one is not "responsible," however that is defined, in the use of one's speech, then one's right to use it ought to be taken away.


    We might ask, by whom, and who gets to decide what is responsible?


  11. Douglas:

    Thanks for you article on the assassination attempt that we never heard about.

    Was the assailant mentally ill or a passionate , political activist, or both, or neither?

  12. Inspector, therein lies the conundrum, doesn't it?

    He was diagnosed some years earlier as a paranoid schizophrenic. He also held some radical views which must be classified as "liberal" (extreme ones) and then there's the anarchist in him. Without a complete psychological profile, we can't say which came first and which triggered the other, if one did.

    Sarah Jane Moore was also an extreme liberal looking to commit an act that would start some sort of liberal/socialist revolution.

    My point, of course, was to illustrate that the Right is not the only source of violent speech and actions.

  13. Douglas:

    We have no experience or knowledge in the clinical diagnosis of mental health disorders. However, for anyone to suggest that someone suffering from mental imbalance has the capacity or discipline to pursue a particular ideological or political philosophy is fascinating to us.

    Maybe we're just stupid, but it would seem to us that erratic, unpredictable, and inconsistent behavior would manifest itself with enough frequency to make any judgment calls something akin to pure speculation, playing the lottery, or as the Logistician was wont to say, "pure science fiction."

    Mental illness is somewhat synonymous with "abnormal behavior."

  14. There is a simple explanation why ordinary people spend so much time and energy on symbols. They do not have the balls, or money, or energy, or clout, or time, or influence to really change or do anything in life. They recognize themselves for what they really are, people with no real power.

    They will not stand up in the street by themselves and take charge of a movement or lead something. Instead, they hide behind their curtains, and piss and moan, but when they leave their homes, they are suddenly church mice.

  15. Real Brother here.

    If Racists don't want to take responsibility for what they say and who gets killed while they tout their 1st and 2nd Amendment Rights then they should lose those 1st and 2nd Amendment Rights.


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