When I was a child, eons ago, we were taught to avoid any form of physical altercations and remain calm, especially when we were provoked. If a classmate bullied you, you could respond by saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never harm me!”
Our educators and parents were united in the belief that verbal bullying was tolerable, but physical retaliation was not. They believed that the damage caused by words was negligible, but the immorality of the latter was unacceptable. Generations of children were taught that to be good meant not fighting back.
Fighting was a sign of being low class and having a lack of moral character. If someone insulted you, you ignored him or her. After all, it was just words. If he hit you, you had a moral right to defend yourself and fight back. That was the proper conduct of a civilized person. But if she insulted you, you just turned your back and ignored her. Words slid off your back like water – or so they said.
Our elders at the time could not appreciate what we are only now beginning to understand: that words can cause fundamental harm – both psychological and physical. Bullying hurts in every way possible. It marks the bullied person, as well as the bully, by damaging their psyches. Bullies begins to think of themselves as smart and powerful leaders. And they are. They learn they can hurt others and it can become a way to prove their own importance. On the other hand, the bullied begin to believe some part of their accusers’ claims. They are weak and have no defenders. They feel all alone and sometimes that becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Their self-image becomes tainted with loneliness and fragility.
But perhaps more significantly, bullying enshrines stereotypes and empowers victimization. Those participating, and those watching, imbibe the hateful messages. They begin to believe what they hear. Certain characteristics are singled out, whether they apply or not, and the individual is victimized because of a supposed insubstantiality. These easily become group failures, and ethnic or racial stereotyping follows. All those who are X are like this one. Or this one is like all who are X. Before logic or experience can overrule this kind of thinking, hatred takes over and we have lost a group of young people.
People in power, both in the schoolyard and in the political arena, can use words to mold ideas and motivate populations. They use words to misdirect, and discredit, to avoid an inconvenient truth and encourage violence. We have experienced the incredible rise of hateful discourse that can culminate in genocidal acts. It is our experience of these actions that must make us more attentive to the power of speech. We should not allow ourselves to fall under the spell of such demagoguery. Likewise, we should never use adverse words to pigeonhole other groups.
So what can we do?
The first thing on the list cannot be to limit free speech. Free speech and freedom of religion are fundamental aspects of democracy. Rather, we must be ever diligent to distinguish between free speech and hate speech. Freedom of speech means we are allowed, even encouraged, to disagree, but hateful speech incites people to harmful actions.
Our task is to focus on education. Words count. That must be our message after all that has happened. Moreover, our message cannot just be about anti-Semitism. Recently, 11 Jews were killed in a horrible act of anti-Semitism. But it is linked with so many recent acts of gun violence and random acts of terror and hatred, all of which were fueled by words (and guns).
It is our task to fight all forms of racism and ethnic bullying. We must start with children and work our way up to our leaders. We are responsible for our own words, for our children’s words and for our leaders’ words. It is our task to stop this myopic and dangerous use of words.