“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never harm me.”
So went an old nursery rhyme. To recall it brought up long-forgotten playground bullying, with irate little girls, hands on hips, throwing the words in the face of the taunters.
The truth is: Words can, and do, indeed harm.
The change in acceptable verbiage has been creeping up on us for a couple of decades, if we’re honest. How subtly the words from TV sitcoms found their way into conversations, proving the person is really “with it” when they used the “in” vocabulary: “Danger, Will Robinson!” “Not!” “Yada, Yada, yada..” “The tribe has spoken.” “You are the weakest link. Leave now.”
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I’m not a linguist, but words are important to my work. Depending on the system in which I’m working, words have become triggers. In some systems, it’s the term “pastoral” that sets people off. In another, it might be “patriotism.”
When I ask for definitions and examples, it’s completely random in response. Randomness delivered with a knock-out punch, however.
Creeping ever more stealthily, like poison gas, seeping under doorways and cracks around windows of our souls: the inflections, the loss of filters, the blaming and shaming.
As a consultant working across the country, it gets harder and harder to set norms and standards for how groups will treat each other as we work. TV talk and reality shows draw viewers with scenarios of conflicted couples and families screaming at each other. Radio talk-show guests seem to think nothing of interrupting host or callers.
In short, the words are hurting. They’re hurting our country. Hurting the ability of people to hear each other, to work out differences. To problem solve. It’s all become normalized; acceptable normality.
Except it isn’t normal. It isn’t acceptable. And it’s time we stopped and paid attention to what we’re becoming; to the model we’re setting for the children who will carry this terrible hate-driven negativity into a future I don’t want to even think about.
The most distressing thing of all to one who teaches civil dialogue is the comment that civility is a “liberal agenda.”
Every few days, a different topic ignites the fire. The sides line up, determined not to listen to anyone who has a different perspective. Words turn into blaming. Shaming. Longtime friends “unfriend” on Facebook. Family members shut each other out.
Before the ugly rhetoric gets any further out of control, there are three words I’d suggest hold hope for healing this brokenness: Awareness. Willingness. Choice.
Awareness that we are all complicit in our speech or our silence in the creation of an intolerably negative environment, and it will take all of us to change it. Willingness to enter into a change process. And the choice-to acknowledge civility as a nonpartisan value and move toward making it happen.
Kay Collier McLaughlin is an author and leadership consultant who lives in Nicholas County. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.