We Need To Change Our Conversation: Stop the Violence In Our Language

I keep reading about all the conversations we need to be having.  About guns.  About mental health.  About the privacy of our kids’ identities.  And yes yes yes to all that, but before we can actually have hard conversations, we need to take a hard look at how we converse.

we need to stop this
we need to stop this

What are we are saying?

One of my more recent videos for Partners in Torah touched on the power of language.  Most of us understand that the adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is quite untrue.  Words are capable of crippling a person to the point to which they are no longer functional.  Our sages teach us that words have immense creative, but also destructive, potential.  For parents this is very applicable.  Everything we say to, about and around our children shapes their view of themselves, life and the world.

But no pressure.

Something I noticed in the wake of the tragedy in Newtown is the amount of violence we use in our language.  Just last night, I used the phrase “don’t kill me” in jest to a friend, in reference to how hard it was to get through a crowded room.  WHAT WAS I THINKING?  I wasn’t.  This kind of violent language has just crept in.  And that is not cool at all.

Violent or cruel language is found in abundance online.  Go to any hot-button topic on blogs about parenting, politics, religion, or anything involving Israel.  People get really mad, and slurs, threats and general hostility abound.

Here are some comments on this response to this viral post that’s been circulating.  Note the violent references.  Note also that the violence is in reference to children.

Screen Shot 2012-12-17 at 6.44.22 PM



I’m not being critical of these commenters, I just wanted to show how this violent language is passed off as completely acceptable.  I know kids can be immensely frustrating (and I don’t even have teenagers yet, so apparently, I have not yet experienced frustration).  I know that all mothers need to let off steam.  But should we be doing it with this kind of language?  And online?  What is the message we’re sending?  To me, it seems that it is condoning physical violence as an acceptable outlet for frustration.  

This is not what we need.

Stop Dehumanizing People We Disagree With Or Don’t Like

Back when I was a young college student studying abroad, I made friends with a very fun, very liberal girl from New Jersey.  She educated me all about her political views, and I loved what I heard.  In a phone call home, I was gleefully recounting to my father about just how evil those evil Republicans were.  There was a long pause and then he said,  “Honey, we’re Republicans.”


While imbibing my new friend’s vitriol, I had made the mistake of dehumanizing all Republicans everywhere.  I forgot that there are also mothers, fathers, children, intelligent, compassionate people among them.  Including my parents, who I love, and who are amazing people I strive to emulate.

Yes, it’s so much easier to just make fun of or villainize those we disagree with.  But in doing so we are missing a powerful opportunity to understand why they believe what they do.  I’ve had some amazing conversations with people who I strongly disagree with.  In some cases, it’s helped me crystallize my own beliefs.  In other cases, it has made me reassess.  But in some cases, it’s just made me cry.  Because people can be nasty and cruel.  And that is how NOT to have a conversation.

When we dehumanize those we disagree with, it makes it disturbingly easy to make threats or inappropriate references to them.  I ran across another smattering of disturbing blog comments which illustrate this point.  In this post, the author was discretely nursing her baby in a quiet corner outside of Kmart (in Australia, I feel I should add), when

A woman walked in, trailed by her bogan boyfriend and bogan friend. Pregnant and wearing leggings as pants, she saw me and her face looked like she’d sucked on something sour and unexpected.

I smiled at her and she pointedly looked at me and said loudly “I can’t believe she’s breastfeeding in public like that. It’s disgusting and offensive.”

I can certainly commiserate with the blog author, but I was shocked at the ferociousness of some of the comments.  There were no fewer than five suggestions that the pregnant woman should not be allowed to have children (or “to breed” as one put it), and one commenter who even questioned her right to exist.  That’s right.  According to that guy, if someone makes a rude comment, they don’t have the right to exist.  

And we ask how mass shootings can happen?  I understand that people maybe want to be dramatic, or it’s hyperbole, or whatever.  I don’t think that kind of hyperbole should be acceptable.  I think it should join the ranks of the “N” word and the “R” word.  No one should ever joke about hurting or killing another human being.  It’s not funny.  It’s not clever.  It’s verbal violence and it needs to stop.

I’m all for people not having assault rifles in their homes, and for improved mental health services, but I believe that we also need to change on a more fundamental level.  I’m going to do my part and try to eradicate violent language from my life.  I’m going to try to see the humanity in those with whom I strongly disagree.  Will you join me?  

more of this, please
more of this, please

59 thoughts on “We Need To Change Our Conversation: Stop the Violence In Our Language

  1. I agree. It’s disturbing to hear that kind of violent language especially when parents are talking about their children. I was feeling all superior because violent language isn’t accepted in my family, but then I realized I recently expressed a wish to “kill” my loudly barking dog. So I’ve got to work on that.

    Thanks for calling attention to what we’re saying.

  2. Yes, I will join you! I joined you before you asked me. I have many thoughts, but in the end, the change begins within us, and within our homes. We need to talk love and compassion no matter how much we are hurt or angry or sad. We need to commit to helping parents who clearly need help rather than judging them as “bad parents.” People need to stop using the internet as a shield to say whatever they want. Our kids see that behavior. We need to really understand that we are all in this together, but fighting over who is right will get us no where. Thank you for this!

    1. I’m sensing a kindred spiritness here. Big time! And amen to ending the mommy wars. Think about how much stronger we would all be if we just supported each other. Thank you for contributing!

  3. Rivki: of course I’m with you. Violence in our language is insidious. And people will say that You are trying to create a 1984 Orwellian kind of world, where everyone’s thoughts and words are pure. That people have a right to free-speech. That this freedom is protected by our first right in the Constitution. It’s going to take a lot of work to understand that our violent language is linked to our densinsitization to animals and humans. but boy am I with you on this. i worked so hard to get my college students to find other words besides “dumb” and “stupid” in essays when they did not agree with an author’s opinion. i know the US values independent critical thinking, but we can think critically without being so dang nasty.

    1. According to Merriam-Webster, the “critical” in “critical thinking” means “exercising or involving careful judgment or judicious evaluation.” It does not mean saying nasty things about anyone or anything. And free speech (this is me talking, not the dictionary) means that they can’t put you in jail for saying something. It doesn’t mean it’s morally OK or wise to say whatever you’re thinking.

      1. Debby! I agree. And I apologize for all the grammatical errors in my last post. (Not very scholarly of me, eh?) I was trying out the new dictation function on my phone and I didn’t realize that every time I paused that it would start with a capital letter. Oy. I agree with you and Rivki 100%. I was just saying that once people start asking folks to “clean up their language,” others get accusatory. It just happens. I’ve been in rooms with academics — people who are supposed to be the most educated people in our country — and they get nasty and turn on each other when these kinds of discussions take place.

        But I agree with Rivki that the old adage about “sticks & stones” is a crock; words hurt the most. Words can break a heart. Words can break a spirit.

        1. Lol, Renee, I didn’t even notice any grammatical problems. That reminds me of something my music teachers used to tell me whenever would make a face after hitting a wrong note. They would say, “the audience won’t know you made a mistake unless you let them know!”

          It happens in academia, in the religious community. It’s everywhere. Sigh.

    2. It’s also difficult when I see/hear people in the media using words like “dumb,” “stupid” or “idiot” to describe those who are ideologically different. It comes from both sides, and this is why I like to listen to the classical music station.

      But really, it will take a lot of work, but we’ve made inroads before with other inappropriate language, so hopefully violent language will also become a thing of the past.

  4. This is an AWESOME post! You are so correct, and this is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile. In fact, I’ve been working on a “sticks and stones” post for several months now… haven’t found the time to finish it or say what I really wanted to say. It is amazing how violent our culture is in general. I heard a woman scream at her kid not too long ago “if you don’t stop that I’m gonna break your face!” I’m sure (I hope) it was just a threat, but holy crap batman!
    I appreciate you coming by my blog – I am glad I followed you back, and yes, I will join you!

    1. thank you! I’m glad you followed me back, too! Let me know when you finish your “sticks and stones” post; I would love to read it. It pains me to see/hear the way people treat their children, and I would wager that the vast majority of the time, that’s how they were raised, and they may not even have the tools to communicate in any other vein. And that is a tragedy.

  5. That second quoted comment is the one that made me shut down that particular blog post. And then I asked, on my Facebook account, that people stop spreading the post as I had major issues with it as a mental health professional. I closed the post though because I felt like giving an hugely angry response as I don’t think blogs are any place to post pictures of our children and then violently destroy them with our words.
    I am one who has certainly been in her share of hostile and heated debates. I’ve learned that they are usually unproductive and lead me to feel enraged so I rarely engage them anymore. It’s the resorting to ad hoc arguments that destroys every debate though and I like to think that I have done a good job of attacking ideas and not the people who have them. I have to admit, I do believe some ideas are worth getting really heated about though, like that church disrespecting the grieving of Newtown.

    1. Good for you for closing the post. I’ve also stopped engaging in debates that lead me to become deeply shaken. It’s too emotionally taxing for me, and I need my strength for so many other things.

      I completely agree that there are certain things worth getting zealous about. That “church” is beyond ridiculous. Did you know that even the KKK is protesting them? You know that when the KKK is against you, you are really, really, really bad. But I still wouldn’t use violent language regarding the people of that church. Am I disgusted and appalled? Yes, definitely. But as horribly and ridiculously misguided they are, they are still humans, and hopefully someday they will wake up and realize that they are so so wrong.

  6. I work in customer service, specifically telephone service. All day long I answer calls and do my very best to help the people I speak to get the best result possible.

    I cannot begin to tell you how often each day I suffer through calls where people feel they have a right to call me names, to question my intelligence, to tell me that I am a thief or otherwise immoral because they feel that the company I work for has somehow taken advantage of them. The phrase “you people” is thrown about unchecked.

    I hear hatred and racism daily. After each call I have only a split second to recover and redirect before I have to answer the next call. If I am not able to pivot fast enough my next caller may not get the smile they deserve. Every caller deserves that smile until they prove otherwise.

    I don’t take calls from bratty teenagers. The company I work for serves senior citizens. The majority of my callers are in their 60’s and 70’s.

    I have to warn adults to stop using the F word or I will disconnect. I have to warn grown ups to stop yelling or I will disconnect. I have to tell mature citizens that if they are unwilling to listen to what I am saying that I will have to disconnect – and yet they continue to rant.

    I listen to democrats yell that I am too conservative and I have to listen to conservatives yell that I am too liberal.

    Over and over I am abused as if I am a policy maker in the company I work for. I am not. I am an individual who is glad to have the job she has. I am an individual who will bend over backwards to make note of your concerns and forward them on. I am the person who will stay on the phone with you for ages helping you solve a problem if you will just be nice. I don’t mind if people call and say “I am angry”, I do mind when they call and say “YOU make me angry”.

    *Sigh* I guess I needed to get that off my chest. Thank you for encouraging us to be better people and to use better words – there are a lot of faceless people who will benefit from more kindness.

    1. I am so sorry you have to deal with that. I can only imagine, having worked in customer service myself. I’m glad you got it off your chest, and every time you are able to respond kindly in the face of such insults you are triumphing in the war against darkness. For real.

      There’s a Torah concept that a person who is insulted and does not respond is capable of giving incredibly potent blessing to others. Because they do not respond to insult with insult, it’s like they are tapping into a storehouse of divine assistance and favor. It’s a big deal. Pat yourself on the back (and I wouldn’t mind getting a blessing from you, if you don’t mind).

      1. Gosh I’m not sure I would know how to bless you except to … well wish health and happiness to you and to those you love. And if for some reason that is not in God’s plan I wish you abundant acceptance and peace.

      2. In 12 step programs this is referred to as keeping our side of the street clean. That is to say, it does not matter at all what the guy across the street says or does. It does not matter if he is hurtful, angry, dishonest or unkind – that is between him and his God.

        What does matter is that I keep my side of the street clean. It matters what I say, what I do. I need to work to always do the next right thing, to be caring, to be joyful, to be honest, to be kind.

        Is my side of the street always clean? No, I’m afraid not. But it gets better and better.

        If I cant keep my side of the street clean then I can not help others – in a sense I cannot bless them. I am always delighted to learn the many ways that Torah is reflected in my program. I am going to make a blog post out of this one soon :)

        1. Elizabeth Caldwell (I’m guessing) – what I find so impressive about your story is that YOU manage to maintain your equanimity and positive attitude while people download their abuse on you. I would just lose it and let them have it (although to some degree that is socially acceptable in Israel, but that means with higher volume, it should not mean disrespectfully). May you continue to from strength to strength.

          1. You guess correctly :)

            Wouldn’t it be nice if I could take credit for my ability to respond the way I do! But sadly I am not big enough to make myself respond with peace and kindness. In fact I am so small, so weak, that I have no choice but to be fully and totally dependent on my Creator to give me the right responses moment by moment and the peace in the moments between. I cannot claim it. So when you say YOU (I) what is really happening is that G-d is providing me with a positive attitude and equanimity – it is a daily miracle that I am so grateful for.

          2. Elizabeth, that may be – but you are incorporating these positive habits and making them a part of YOUR personality, They are becoming who YOU are, and they are becoming YOUR strengths. I am all in favor of recognizing dependence on the Creator, but at the same time, I think it’s vital that we also recognize our own personality strengths. (IMHO, this becomes especially important when having kids – our kids sense and soak up our attitudes towards ourselves even if we never say a word.) So an appropriate self-esteem and appropriate feeling proud of oneself, I think,is in order here. That’s my opinion.
            There is a classic Jewish book which is very psychological, the Sefer HaChinuch, or “Book of Education,” but a better translation might be “Book of Habit Forming.” He writes that the actions we repeat over and over again become our mentality.
            Wishing you every blessing for continued success in spirituality and other areas in your life.

    1. Yes! I knew that you would be on board. You’re already on board anyways. :) Listening to Horowitz play Rachmaninoff’s 2nd piano concerto under Previn w/the LSO right now. Sigh. Where there’s music, there’s hope.

  7. Wow, this is such a powerful post. You are so right. It starts from the little things. Although we cannot make big changes to prevent such tragedies, we can each start in our own small way, changing ourselves and the way we express ourselves…to make this world a more happy, peaceful place!

    Thank you for this post!

      1. Thank you :)
        You are definitely spreading so much goodness to the world-even just through this post! I’m watching these comments and I’m in awe of how people are responding so positively to this idea. It’s such a great one!

  8. Thank you. I really dislike when my students (aged 5!) say such violent phrases without even realizing it. And most of the children in my class come from homes WITHOUT TVs or available internet! Not just that, but they take words so lightly. Two of my biggest pet peeves are when children say they are STARVING (“No, you are just very hungry”) or they HATE something (“It’s not your taste, or you don’t care for it, but we don’t hate”). Kudos!

  9. I’m in. I was always taught not to belittle other people or use words that can hurt. My Dad also gave me a very good explanation of what would happen if I ever was physically violent to a woman. I find it interesting that so few men can get involved in these discussions without feeling in some way that they are betraying their manhood. I’ve never understood the macho bravado.

    I guess I’ve always been a pacifist without actually wearing the label. I’m also deeply disturbed by the lyrics in some of the songs today. I have read them because I can’t hear them and that is enough for me.

    These words become part of the everyday language of our youth and they believe because one of their musical “heroes” say it that it must be OK. It’s not!

    Sorry I’m rambling again.

    1. Ramble away! I haven’t really listened to popular music for about seven years now, but every now and then I’ll get a glimpse, and it’s pretty awful. Even if the kids aren’t thinking about what they are saying, it’s sneaking its way into their subconscious and shaping their reality. I don’t know why this isn’t more apparent. Music is one of the most powerful forces out there, and to put trivial, or hateful (to others or to oneself) lyrics is a dangerous game.

      1. A glimpse is about all I get or can handle. I see the words on some of the TV shows and in print and I find it unbelievable. I’m not a prude by any stretch but sometimes we need to stop and think. Of course, I forget sometimes that in our teens and twenties we don’t often use our common sense. A truth in the statement “sometimes too soon old and too late smart.”

        As an aside, I’m enjoying your work Rivki and I’m really enjoying your openness and teachings on being a Jew. I’m learning lots! Between you and Renee I couldn’t ask for better teachers.

        1. Yes, things have gotten quite out of hand. I spent a year abroad where I basically didn’t watch anything. When I came back, I caught a peek of a crime drama show (maybe Law & Order, I don’t recall exactly), and I was aghast at the level of violence. And that is a tame show. Tame.

          Thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you’re enjoying everything. Renee is a fantastic teacher and person. Love her. If you ever have any questions, feel free to ask.

  10. I think our conversations need to remain civil. There are lines that are being crossed every day and people are less likely to discuss respectfully. We speak in CAPS and EXCLAMATION!!! and make our points with nothing in the end, just loud NOISE.

    1. Excellent description of what’s going on – no point, just noise. I guess it’s up to us to remain civil when we’re on the receiving end of an all caps conversation.

  11. This is a very thought provoking post! On one hand I completely agree with you. The violence in our language is over-the-top and I witness is often in regard to the most mundane of situations or conversations. That is bad manners, it’s ugly and it speaks to immaturity of emotion and thought.

    …oh the other hand, sometimes I think strong words are called for. I think also that some people use words in different ways than they are used by others. Think in the 80’s when “gnarly” meant cool and “bad” meant good. Common usage of slang dictates the meaning of words on a regular basis and if one choose not to see that, it’s up to them. If I were to say that something was “bad-ass” and it was taken literally, it would clearly conjure up a much different picture from the intended meaning. You could also pick on the over-usage of words like “amazing” (or rather, “Uhh-MAZ-ing!” as it’s often said. These too, lose their meaning unless you’re speaking of something that truly has you in sheer amazement and wonder.

    I have to wonder though which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Like children on the school bus calling each other “poopy head” and other such nonsense, people usually out-grow this language when their sense of self and emotion grow up.

    That said, maybe I am still immature (I don’t doubt that) because on many an occasion I have been known to speak with a potty mouth. ;)

    1. There are definitely times when strong language is called for, but I think there’s a difference between strong language and violent language. And if by strong language, you mean profanity, that is a whole other can of worms. And while over-usage has diluted the ability to express oneself, it doesn’t desensitize us to concepts of violence.

      I’m not talking about kids’ obsession with all things poopy, or about uttering a swear word here and there. It’s expressions like, “she’s so stupid, I wish she would just die.” Or “She should just do us all a favor and kill herself.” Grown people say this. Grown people say “those people shouldn’t be allowed to breed.” That’s what really needs to stop.

  12. Rivki – my friend Andrea Grinberg posted this blogpost on her FB page, and we have decided to start a Three Kind Words campaign – three extra words of compliment, encouragement, or appreciation per day. My husband and son have already started. Thank you for your inspiration!
    Rachel Hershberg
    Beit Shemesh

    1. Rachel, what a wonderful idea! Tizki l’mitzvos! Thank you SO much for letting me know about this, and may we merit to see Moshiach in our days! You’re helping make that a reality!

  13. I love that you are talking about this. A lot has been swirling around in my head since Newton, and this is definitely one of the things I’ve been thinking about – the violence in our language.

    I know I’ve even been guilty of it in seemingly small ways – but when you have a three year old (as I do) and hear your words coming of his little mouth, it really makes you stop and think.

    (So glad to find your blog!)

    1. Hi Amber! I completely agree that the child-as-parrot factor does drive things home rather quickly. I also have a three year old, and he’s been very instructive in revealing to me which phrase or behaviors I need to correct!

  14. Rivki, your explanation to what I said made it clearer for me. Yes, I would definitely agree with that! Just the other day I overheard a few people calling a writer and idiot because they didn’t agree with then. Hours later I overheard people speaking about killing people they think are stupid… all in jest. It made even this sometimes potty-mouthed mom cringe!

    1. I’m glad my comment helped clarify my point. This kind of language is everywhere, joking about killing, suicide. . . things that are really not funny, but we’ve lost touch of that.

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