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.
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.
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?