Friday, May 24, 2013

Why do words hurt?

Coming to terms with hurtful words.

My wife and I were driving to El Paso yesterday to pick up her sister who will be spending the summer with us from the airport. We were driving with the windows open because the air conditioner in our car seems not to function and it is HOT in southern New Mexico this time of year. My wife asked me a question which I completely misunderstood.

I heard “would you be offended if I referred to you as ‘bungie?’” To which I replied, “Probably not anymore, but there was a time when that really upset me.” It was true. When I was a kid at Gertrude Burns Elementary in Newcastle, WY, one of the tools that people would use to bully me was to take my name (I go by “Benji”) and twist it around. Sometimes they’d yell, “hey BUNGIE” and run away or when I’d assert a belief or opinion they’d say “He’s just BUNGIE” then everyone, even the teachers, would laugh at me. They’d keep doing this over and over until I was reduced to tears in front of everyone. Then they’d make fun of me for crying. They enjoyed making me cry. I’d have to say even the teachers seemed to get a thrill out of bringing me to tears so the other kids could mock me for the tears. They wanted me to be hurt. They wanted me to lose my cool. They wanted me to be demeaned because then they could get the pleasure out of taunting me further.

It seems really stupid on the surface. I mean, why would “Bungie” hurt at all? Why were they able to do this, probably most days in second and third grade? In fact, I knew it was stupid at the time. I remember trying to ignore them and play by myself at recess. I would usually, when this game started, just roll my eyes and ignore them. I would ignore them, but they wouldn’t go away. Certainly, if I was successful in continuing to ignore them, they’d move on the physical attacks. It made sense to cry after those. Often they wouldn’t need to resort to group beatings to get me to cry. I’d just start crying because they were saying a meaningless word, or maybe a word that meant a stretchy rope.

 Naming and Association

In discussing rhetoric in the context of argumentation and debate, we often warn our students against fallacies of association. These are mistakes where one associates one idea with another and therefore assumes that both ideas are inherently interrelated. One type of this is the use of the ad hominem argument. Literally translated from the Latin, “ad hominem” means “to man” or more often “to the man.” However, the way we describe this most of the time is “name calling.” For instance when we referred to Bush as a, “trigger happy cowboy” or a “Nazi” or refer to Obama as a “communist” or a “Muslim.” The appellation of the name circumvents arguments about the ideas or actions. Whether or not the name is “accurate” is completely irrelevant. It is that we can use the name to dismiss the person or the idea.

On the other side of the fallacy of association is honor by association: when we say that someone or something is good because it shares certain qualities with other things that are good. For instance, arguing that honey is somehow better for you than corn syrup because it is natural and natural fruits and veggies are good would be this kind of mistake. Or when we mention that Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. were both Republicans (which is true) so George W. Bush must be an equally great dude. By naming something as great, it can be seen as great by others.
Painting by Adolph Hitler around 1910

The use of these fallacies in argumentation is cheap and dirty and wrong. Still, people use them because, at least in the short term, they work. It even works when we are having less public debates. In a personal argument, calling someone a jerk, a loser, a witch, a pig, a control freak or whatever epithet an individual might choose to hurl in an angry moment also circumvents one’s own need to explain one’s position. It is a dismissal, a failure on the part of the one who uses it, not on the part of the one who is called the name. It is evil to say these things because they show a flaw in the speaker’s mind, not to have them said to you.

Grown Up Equivalents.

Certainly, I don’t think someone could goad me into crying in a corner by calling me “Bungie” today. Maybe but probably not.

On the other hand, there are other terms that they could use. Most of them are not the type of words or phrases that I’d post on a blog or even use in my private life, but there are certain terms that if they hurled them at me, names that if someone called me I may very well end up in a violent physical confrontation. This is a very real possibility, if they were used the wrong way.

Let’s take one of those words which I’ll not use here, but my more astute readers can guess what it is. We’ll call it the “S” word. In general, I would not be friends with someone who uses this word or words like it often. If someone just hit her thumb with a nail and screams out “S,” I will not really mind. If I am riding with someone in the car on an icy road and we suddenly slide to the side and someone says, “Oh, S,” I will probably never mention the fact to them. If someone says that the political party which aggravates them is just talking a bunch of “S,” I might, if we’re actually friends, ask them to stop swearing. If we’re not friends, we won’t become friends, but I am not going to hit them.

If a person says, however, “You are nothing but an ‘S’ head,” or “you are a piece of ‘S,’” I would probably leave. If a subordinate or equal talked to me that way, I’d report them after I left. If a superior talked to me that way, I’d immediately look for a way out of that position. If a stranger talked to me that way, I’d remember his or her face and avoid them in the future. Either way, I’d leave. I would leave because if the pattern continued I’d either break down and start crying just like I did as a kid, or I’d end up in a physical altercation. In fact, I’d assume anyone talking that way wants a physical altercation since that is the means by which most people arrive at one.


Why is it that when people hurl these sorts of insults at us that we care at all? The old American proverb “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me” (first written in The Christian Recorder, 1869) seems to be right. If someone says something, what’s the big deal? So, they called you a name. So what? I was repeatedly told by teachers, parents and others that I just needed to “get over it.” When people mocked me like this as a kid. And, I probably should have, but I don’t. Neither do you. No person with a sense of self sits there and lets other people curse and swear at them. No reasonable person lets others call them names.

Possibility one: sinful pride

One of my first thoughts about this came from a camp councilor from church camp when I was a kid. I was between nine and ten years old. A group of boys gathered around me and chanted “fat fag, fat fag, fat fag” repeatedly until they had me crying. Now, I was a bit overweight, but I have never had any tendency toward homosexuality or becoming a British cigarette. I am relatively certain that the boys got into a great deal of trouble. However, the man (I saw him as a man, he was probably just a teenager himself) who took me away to wipe my tears explained that I shouldn’t be crying. He explained that the only reason I’d be upset by this is that I am full of pride and think I don’t deserve to be so harried. He explained that pride is a sin, and if I just quit thinking that I was so great that I didn’t deserve to be mocked, it wouldn’t hurt. It was my pride hurting, not me.

Now, I’ve gone around in my head about this and he might have had a point. However, I think that the word “pride” as we use it in English includes connotations that are sinful, but probably this isn’t the always the case. Certainly pride carries with it concepts of entitlement, arrogance and hubris, which are evil. However, the word can also include a sense of propriety, accomplishment and an appropriate sense of self. I think that there is a kind of pride which is sinful, but I don’t think that this is what is damaged when people attack us.

Possibility two: Caring about other’s opinions.

I’ve seen repeatedly on facebook various pictures that say that insults can only hurt a person if one values the insulting person’s opinion. Certainly, the insults hurt far more if they are coming from a person about whom you care. I had a friend in grade school, Nikki (short for Nicholas). We hung out together quite a bit on the playground. We’d even gone to each other’s house a couple times to play. It was great to have a friend like him who lived on the same block. There were other terms besides Bungie the students used. “Benji, wenji, dirty and dingy” was another one. One day he started chanting the hurtful rhyme while we were playing in his back yard. I never played with him again. Not only was it a mean attack, it was a betrayal.

Most of the kids who did this, however, I did not care one wit about. They were not people I wanted as friends. In general (multiple longitudinal studies have shown), bullies are not the popular kids at school, and this was certainly the case there. They were the mean kids, and while I had no idea that meanness had the double, related definitions of “cruelty” and “average,” when I learned about this it made sense to me. The people who mocked me were specifically the people I didn’t care about at all. Yet, it still hurt. It hurts more when it is someone whose opinion matters, but it hurts no matter what.

Possibility Three: It hurts because they want it to.

Perhaps name calling hurts so much because people WANT to hurt us. Certainly, if we change the scenario a bit and make it a physical assault we know that. If someone bumps into us walking down the street, reasonable people don’t mind, as long as it’s an accident. Sure, there might be some people who will get angry at an accidental bump, but these are not reasonable people. In fact, for most people who were properly raised, if someone accidentally bumps into you, you apologize even though the other person did the bumping.
If someone bumps into us on purpose, however, there’s something going on. The hurt might be physical either way, but if someone bumps us on purpose, there is an emotional hurt as well. It doesn’t matter if we know the person or not. In general their overall opinions on most issues don’t matter. If their opinion is that they can hurt us, they are immediately successful in doing so. The secondary emotion might be either sadness or anger, but the primary emotion, hurt is there.

The problem is the threat. The problem is that the person sees us as a verbal (or in the previous case literal) punching bag. It is not that we are nothing to them. If their opinion is not one we value, it is okay to be nothing. It is that for some reason, they wish us ill and have gone to the trouble to let us know. We are in danger and the hurt is the soul’s response to real, painful danger. It is our mind telling us to engage in fight or flight because this is trouble.

Or maybe not.

Maybe we need to get over ourselves. Maybe we need to get over others. Maybe words don’t hurt. But I think, sometimes, they do.

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