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Sticks, Stones, & Hateful Words

Who doesn’t know the phrase “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” I’ve never had a broken bone, but I exaggerate not, as a human being, a person who cares about the world my children will grow up in, I have been hurt over and over by how people talk to one another. But I remember a time when I did just that. As an eleven year old in Los Angeles I would call my best friend a stupid Mexican because he insisted he was from Puerto Rico (and he actually was). Because I had never heard of Puerto Rico, I was convinced he must have been confused or wrong. Either way that made him stupid in my eyes. I just knew I couldn’t have been wrong. And how many of us actually can admit to our selves that we are the one who don’t know? How many of us have actually acknowledged our own stupidity, or more correctly, ignorance. Was I the only one who couldn’t do this at age 11?

There is a philosophical concept framed by Charles Pierce called the method of tenacity. It is a method that Pierce claims people use to lessen doubt, to assist people in not feeling guilty about not having something to believe in. I was so immersed in the use of the method of tenacity. My head was buried in the sand like an ostrich, I was so afraid to encounter a provocative new thought that I’d almost start sweating if someone said they had an idea. So to counteract this anxiety I would tenaciously express my beliefs, as if emphatically stating my position would be irresistible in terms of swaying anyone’s public opinion that was different from mine.

A classmate of mine from my elementary and middle school days, whom my friends and I considered unattractive (as if any of us were destined to win beauty contests), would often catch an endless amount of insults from us. Why did we feel as if we could dog her out? You tell me! What was it that made some of us feel as if we were better than others, so better that we could misuse and abuse them whenever we wanted to? How many of us have done something down right nasty to someone else when we were kids that we would love to take back? Here’s a question: What would you say to that kid if you had some time to talk with him/her?

Somebody please explain to me why people are so comfortable calling others’ names, but are ready to fight, perhaps even kill when they are called something they don’t like. Some words are sticks and stones. They break your bones, and really, really, hurt.


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The solution could probably be summed up in a song we have all heard and probably know the refrain to: Teach Your Children by C,S & N. Too often adults fail to stop what they are doing when the "teachable moment" comes before them-- in this case hearing your child, or another's, call someone a "dog", "fag", or whatever. If a child is taught early on in no uncertain terms that this type of expression/behavior is unacceptable and WHY, then I believe we could go a long way toward curtailing other expressions that lead us down the road to the many "isms" this country seems to wrestle with. And yes, I realize that often times kids will say what they say out of adult earshot but I also know that often times adults turn a deaf ear to unacceptable words/conversations and thereby implicitly support what is being said. As anyone with children knows all too well, every day/moment our children test us on every level in every regard.... and it's up to all of us to make sure they comprehend the material correctly, as it were.

The "great" thing about name calling is it's incredibly easy. Nobody is perfect and anytime somebody points this out about another person it keeps them from thinking about their own flaws.

"At least I'm not like him..." these stone-throwers would think. But let he who has not sinned throw the first stone.

I'm not sure how much the method of tenacity ties into name calling and the like, but perhaps it's more of an inferiority complex masking itself as superiority. In order to convince others (and perhaps themselves) that they have worth, they show how others are lacking and by contast they must be great. It's a disgusting habit of humanity, but how are we to overcome our instincts? I wish I knew...

I agree with Brennan, Most people will jump to name calling when they want to separate themselves from some behavior, person, place etc that has been deemed bad. Our competitive society perpetuates this. People stake people against each other as a means to be better than someone else. In my experience coming from a rural, impoverished area, people are trying to attain something better than they think they have and they think they need to knock out the other guy in order to get ahead. Calling people names psychologically damages them and they know works better than just physically attacking them although this usually goes along with the mental abuse. Demeaning words are more damaging then physical actions as words stay with you and take longer to heal. Not saying that physical abuse isn't damaging but mental abuse is worse. I think people need to understand that by changing their own language and leading by example hurtful words can be curtailed. Although in my experience most people tend to do the name calling in the privacy of their home so the public doesn't know what they really think. This in turn is in front of their children or to their children which just perpetuates the cycle of emotional abuse. I am not sure what the solution is to name calling but I know that I can change myself and try not to resort to this type of behavior.

The first time I had the word "nigger" directed toward me I was very young. I was playing marbles in the gutter on Lafayette Avenue in Brooklyn when Eddie Gross called me a nigger. I retaliated by calling him a kike. Neither one of us knew what the words meant, but we knew that they were insults.
When I went in the house I asked my mother "Mom, what's a nigger?" She replied, as she always did when I asked such questions, "Look it up in your dictionary." It was defined as "a low type person," I remember.
I thought little more about it until my father, who was old school, sat me down and told me that if anybody ever called me that again I should fight him.
The following day my mother saw Eddie Gross and me playing marbles again. She asked me if we were still mad at each other. "That was yesterday," I told her.

The reason people who call names are often so sensitive to being called named themselves is generally a deep sense of insecurity. It is much of what I think drives racism, people who are uncomfortable with their own place in life like to think there is someone below them. If you have any experience with the prision system you can see this in inmates, where the white inmates are often very quick to look down on everyone else despite the people who they look 'down' on are in the exact same position.

I'm really glad this blog exists, I left Plattsburgh about 15 years ago and when I come home I've noticed a lot more diversity. Plattsburgh used to be a place where Irish Catholics and French Catholics were told by the Church to attend mass in different places, and my high school class was 100% white.

I'd say the biggest diversity issue currently in Plattsburgh is the prison industry. Since so many people in the area work in the prison system often their only real exposure to anybody who isn't white is inmates at work. This often can lead to bad ideas of what Afro-Carribean people and others are really like. I know I wouldn't want anybody to judge what white people are like by looking at the prison population.

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