“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but calling names can’t hurt me.”
So goes the playground chant. It’s an incantation to protect ourselves from the evil of the words of others. It’s a reassurance that whatever others may say we are secure in our own person.
The problem is that like all the other incantations I’ve ever come across, this one doesn’t work. The reassurance it offers is temporary at best, and it can be a veneer of self-delusion covering all kinds of insecurity. “Sticks and stones…” may make a fine mantra for the playground, but it isn’t actually true, is it? Words can hurt far worse than bits of wood, and can leave scars which last far longer.
Let me tell you a true story in confidence. After all, we’re all friends here. There was a young boy, we’ll call him Dick for the sake of discretion. He was brought up in a secure and stable environment by parents who loved him. He was pretty bright, did well at school and had a number of very good friends. He had one problem, though. Well, two to be truthful. His ears. They stuck out of the side of his head like wings. He might never have noticed, but to his schoolmates they were a source of continual amusement and rarely a day went by without some jest being made about them. He grew to hate those ears with a will and was convinced his whole appearance was made stupid because of them. Now that’s he grown up his ears are no longer perpendicular to his head. Normal growth took care of that. But even now, more than 20 years later there remains more than a little sensitivity about his perfectly ordinary looking ears. He’d chanted “sticks and stones” as loudly as anyone, but knew he was lying even as he did so.
The Bible warns us about our use of words. The epistle of James calls the tongue a fire with flames fed by hell, a source of evil and poison. If James had lived in the internet age, who will bet me that he wouldn’t have said something about whichever fingers we use on our keyboards? Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, said that anyone who calls his brother a fool deserves hell alongside the murderer. Throughout the scriptures there is a recognition that the words we use can have a powerful effect on others for good or for ill.
I don’t suppose anyone who has read so far will be disagreeing with me. Anyone with social skills more advanced than a toddler’s knows that we have to exercise caution in the way that we speak to others. That isn’t to say we always do it, but we know we should. On the internet, though, different rules apply. Perhaps it is because of its relative anonymity. Maybe it is because many of the “cues” we get in normal conversation are missing or perhaps because the conventions of politeness in these cross-cultural conversations are still being established. Whatever the reasons for it, the temptation to “shout”, insult, put down and vilify is powerful indeed. And just like in ordinary conversation, it should always be resisted.
On the internet, you can’t throw sticks and stones. But you can still cause great hurt.