Remember the schoolyard taunt "sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me?" When I was a kid that little saying was taken to be absolute truth, and anyone who complained about being called a name was labelled a crybaby-- which, if you were sensitive to language, and considered name-calling a form of bullying--made matters even worse!
Somewhere during the decades between my childhood and that of my children, "conventional wisdom" on abusive use of words seismically shifted. Thank goodness! I taught my kids that words matter and that hard, mean words could hurt as much as fists. As a word person, I have always felt the inherent power of words. I am glad much of the rest of the world now accepts this truth as well!
This week, schools across the country celebrated No Name-Calling Week. Created by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (GLSEN) in 2004, this program encourages "schools to dedicate a week of the year to improving school climate," and "has grown into one of the largest bullying-prevention initiatives in the country." No-Name Calling Week offers activities for all grade levels, so that pernicious bullying may be stopped before it even starts. And GLSEN is not alone in tackling the problem of bullying: my son's high school has their own award-winning program, Project Upstanders.
It is through such efforts that we now see what name-calling always has been: a way to diminish and discriminate against those we perceive as "other." The world is getting smaller by the day. We have contact with people of widely different backgrounds and preferences all the time now. We need to treat those we interact with respectfully, and use language that reflects a non-judgmental awareness of others' differences.
Those used to wielding language as a cudgel need to get with the program. "Verbal bullies" must see that their words can provoke as much as actions do. Incoming (and former) New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton knows this. Maureen Dowd quotes the Commissioner in a recent column for the New York Times, saying "We have an expression in policing that it’s not the use of force that gets cops in trouble, it’s the use of language... an officer who says, 'Sir, can I speak to you?,' rather than 'Hey, you, get over here,' will be more productive."
Well said, sir, well said. Now let's all go out and "use our words" as well as NYC's finest!