“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” It is the defiant retort, one imagines, from a victim of bullying on the playground. In my childhood this chant was often heard in those playground battles. But the thing is, it’s all bravado; it’s not true.
Surely we know from decades of exposure to popular psychology and the Self-Help Movement that names – words – can indeed hurt us. Some names can cut deeply – can wound, silence and shame. So much about name calling is unconscious. We thoughtlessly repeat words or phrases or slang that may mask fear, hatred, ignorance, intolerance.
In the vernacular of my early years, I am saddened to realize, were many racist, sexist and xenophobic expressions. One in particular comes to mind. That phrase is “Indian giver.” I was raised in Alberta, our suburban home surrounded by farm and ranch lands. I literally went to school with “cowboy” and “Indian” kids. All of us used words that we did not really understand. I had two “Indian” play mates: sisters, Marina and Roberta. I didn’t know that the words “Indian” or “Indian giver” were insulting, pejorative – racist. I now know that at some level both Marina and Roberta must have known.
It’s almost inconceivable to me now to realize how racist was the language that I grew up with. And it humbles me to realize how differently from me that Marina and Roberta must have experienced the language of our childhood. So, I was the unwitting perpetrator of a kind of racism, and I have also been an innocent target of belittling language.
I am a “Baby Boomer” which means (in part) that I moved through my youth and well into my adulthood being constantly confronted with the systemic sexism of my culture’s language. “Back in the day” there was a sole use of the pronoun “he” in everything in print, including school texts, and it was a subtle but ubiquitous reminder that I (“she”) was not important; she didn’t really matter.
Language is the shared symbol system of human beings. Words codify our own and our culture’s history, beliefs, and values. Language can inculcate in us ignorance, intolerance, even hatred, but it can also uplift, enlighten, value and acknowledge. I remember learning that several isolated, non-colonized cultures in existence on the planet do not have a word for “war.” Because the word is absent, what this really means is that these are societies that actually have no experience, nor knowledge, nor history nor belief in war.
For over a decade, I have had a new role as family member and support person to an intelligent, creative and kind individual with a mental illness. I have become grateful for my exposure to and experience with the subculture (underclass) of those who live with mental illness.
However, I have also become sensitized to the trivializing, even cruel, certainly ignorant nature of our language around mental illness. Some of our names and words cause stigmatization which has been evidenced to discourage people from seeking help.
Our language also interferes with effective treatment and quality of life, not to mention that it shames, blames and silences the innocent.
According to a 2007 study the following is a partial list of the most commonly used words describing those with mental illness: schizo; nuts; psycho, mental; spastic; disturbed; looney; demented; weird; freak; odd; insane; crazy.
I am blessed with age, experience and education all of which have helped to alert me to some of my culture’s (and my own) possibly inadvertent, silent beliefs and values embedded as they are in our language.
Once revealed and examined, I can choose to no longer believe in some of those silent attitudes and prejudices.
Yes, sticks and stones may break our bones, but do not be fooled, names and words can and do indeed hurt us.
Let’s be mindful with them
Terrace resident Judy McCloskey is a retired Northwest Community College instructor and a member of the Northern Health Authority’s Mental Health and Addictions Advisory Committee.