Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words will never hurt me
Except when they do.
When someone hurls cruel words at another person, the intent of the insult is to hurt, to taunt, to degrade and inflict pain on the targeted person. Take yesterday’s brawl between the Boston Red Sox and the Tampa Bay Rays. The fight was triggered by David Ortiz being hit by a pitch from Tampa’s David Price. Normally I don’t pay attention; bench-clearing brawls are a dime a dozen in professional sports. But in venting to the media afterward, Ortiz hurled an insult Price’s way that caught my attention: “You can’t be acting like a little girl out there. You aren’t going to win all of the time. When you give it up, that is an experience for the next time. If you are going to be acting like a little b—- every time you give it up and put your teammates in jeopardy, that is going to cost you.”
Normally I would just let this slide. I’ve heard all things female used as a metaphor for all things nasty and ineffectual my entire life, so that I no longer notice it. However, Ortiz saying this in the aftermath of the shooting at the University of California-Santa Barbara and the growth of the #YesAllWomen conversation online really caught my attention.
You want to know why there’s a persistent problem with domestic violence in this country? Just look at Ortiz’s words, and consider the unspoken message: that women are bad. That to be “like a girl” is to the worst thing you can be, especially in a masculine world of professional sports. The effects of these insults on the rest of us aren’t taken into consideration by the one doing the insulting. Of course, we don’t want to become so thin-skinned we can’t bear to hear the most minor complaint, no matter how justified…. but there are still people who think that nasty, ill-intentioned words denigrating women and girls aren’t a big deal. In reality, they are, especially given the recent events in Santa Barbara.
The Power of Hurtful Words
Derogatory words have long-lasting results that spread far beyond the person to whom they were hurled. Words are powerful. Words spoken in the heat of the moment have incredible power. Children like myself who were brought up in an environment where insults and cruel taunts from family members or classmates were the norm will tell you that words hurt even more than actual physical blows. That’s because those words embed themselves in your child mind, and they don’t leave – ever. No matter how much you bury those memories, they resurface every so often, usually triggered by something minor.
For me, it was the approach of my 30th high school reunion. Initially, I planned to attend. It was a chance to go back home, where I still have family. But as the date drew near, I began to have strange dreams about the event. Old, forgotten memories resurfaced. I started growing reluctant to go, and began to spend more and more time reading online posts in the reunion Facebook group, and dreading its approach. Finally, I opted not to go, even though I followed the posts from those who did avidly. I just couldn’t bring myself to return to an environment that held my worst memories. My high school years in Mt. Vernon, and the grade school years that preceded them, left scars that are still fresh, no matter how much I try to bury them.
As I grew up, I carried those memories around with me. “I’m stupid, I’m worthless, I’ll never have any friends,” and the end result is that I learned never to trust myself in social situations – and I certainly don’t trust others. Social situations are work rather than fun for me, and I invariably leave them exhausted. I watch people endlessly, only occasionally realizing what I’m doing, prepared to defend against insults. Inside, I’m still that grade school child, getting on the school bus and seeing the unsmiling faces of the other students – two in particular that I had considered to be friends – slowly shaking their heads “no” to tell me not to sit with them. Forty years later I can close my eyes and see that scene clearly. Without knowing how, I had been branded in the school social hierarchy as being not worthy – as the omega in the pecking order, the outcast. I spent eight years watching from the outside, internalizing the hurt and the insults and the inescapable fact that there must be something wrong with me. As a result, to this day I have few friends, and no “best” friend other than my husband. The lessons of childhood have lasting power: friends will abandon you for someone “better,” so be prepared to be dumped.
There are plenty of studies that show the impact of harsh words on the emotions and behavior of adults which were caused by hearing and internalizing cruel words as children. As adults we act within the framework of lessons learned as we grew up. Cruelty breeds cruelty.
In a country where 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence in her lifetime, where women experience more than four million physical assaults from their partners and 1 in 3 of female homicide victims are murdered by a current or former partner, do we really think that we should be overlooking, even tolerating, a mindset where women are not only things, but bad things? Are we willing to allow women to be treated like the worst thing men can be, to be a symbol of not measuring up? And if we are, is it any wonder people like the Santa Barbara shooter feel entitled to possess us, as if we aren’t real, and murder us if we don’t behave as they expect us to?
Words may be just words, but they live forever. And so does the damage they cause.