And Words Will Never Hurt Me
I was participating in a discussion the other day where it was asked, How should we Christians Show Christ’s Love to Homosexuals? The person who posed the question for discussion said he felt he wanted to apologize to LGBTQ people for the horrid way that the church catholic has treated them. He was asking the best way to do this. Being a Christian forum, of mainly straight, white men, many were quick to say that such an apology is unwarranted because one cannot apologize for the church. Besides, the church has done nothing wrong.
This is where I tuned out. I become incensed at such notions and they inevitably lead to victim blaming, or are born of it. Either way there is no conversing with people that do this. No matter what is said tempers flare and the ad hominems begin to fly. To be honest I am not above slinging them myself while simultaneously touting the virtues of non-fallacious argument.
Of course the person that asked the question can and should apologize for the church’s despicable treatment of LGBTQ people. If I am a member of a group that has members, even a fringe, minority of the membership, that treats communities of people in such dehumanizing and hurtful ways as some within the church have treated the LGBTQ community and individuals, it reflects upon every member of the group and the group itself. The group and all its members share in the guilt, so it is appropriate to apologize, to try to make amends to the injured. Just because I have personally done nothing wrong, have not harmed anyone (something I cannot personally claim, I have at one time or another held views, said things, made jokes that were homophobic, racist, sexist, etc. I do try to search myself for vestigial remnants. Being called on my privilege, when it appears, offers me that opportunity.) we still share the group’s guilt by choosing to associate with it. Christians should understand this concept of imputed guilt as it is at the core of many atonement theologies and the whole fallen nature thing, yet we deny it. But this isn’t really the topic of this post. My apologies for the digression.
I didn’t totally tune out, just avoided certain persons’ responses.
Somehow the topic of verbal abuse came up, this is what I actually came here to talk about. Someone came close to denying the existence of verbal abuse when he said that words cannot hurt, unless we choose to be hurt by them. He recited the lil ditty
Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me.
When I look at bullying and how verbal abuse is a part of bullying, and other forms of abuse, I recall being taught this very same ditty as a child. It was our standard response when our children were being taunted, called names, etc. I was taught this by people I trusted as a child. I do not think they meant any harm, just don’t think that they thought it through. I know they had the best of intentions, to give us comfort, to help us stand strong in the face of abuse. But the idiom is false. Words do hurt, they can hurt very much. No, it is not just my choice to be hurt by a verbal assault. Verbal assaults are hurtful, they are meant to inflict pain, why else would we use them? Words become weapons the same way a baseball bat, or a steak knife can become weapons. I know, I’ve used them to this end. Have had them used against me as weapons.
This idiom, seems to me can lead to further abuse in the form invalidating someone’s feelings and victim blaming. “If you were stronger…” “If you weren’t a weakling…” then you wouldn’t choose to be hurt by simple words. This is fucking non-sense. Hurtful, dangerous non-sense. The words were strung together as a weapon, of course they hurt. You are not wrong for feeling hurt, you were. Your feelings are real, no one should deny you your feelings, tell you they are wrong. This idiom lends itself to doing just that. No people should be taught not to be abusers, verbal or otherwise.
This same person who recited the lil ditty said that verbal abuse can cause no real harm, not like physical abuse. I’d like to say that emotional abuse, of which verbal abuse is a part, is very much damaging physically. Negative emotions lead to the release of stress hormones which are rather toxic to the body. Verbal abuse harms people physically.
But, this isn’t the only harm that can come from this saying. Imagine what we would have to do in order to choose to not be affected by verbal assaults. It seems to require a hardening of the heart. I think we have to kill off a part of our humanity, Imago Dei for the Christian audience, to not be affected by verbal, emotional assaults. Actually I know this from experience. I internalized the idiom, tried desperately to live it out and in the process muted that part of me that would be hurt by what people said to or about me. I became less than fully human. I was missing the part of me that could truly love, feel sympathy for the other. Isn’t this what we are asking people to do when we insist that words will never hurt me?
Words can hurt, can be used as weapons. The good taken and used for evil. When we are beaten with words it is not our fault for “choosing” to be hurt, as that is only a choice that can be made from a hardened, less than fully human heart.
For all those who I have beaten with words I am truly sorry for abusing you. You did nothing to deserve that treatment. The pain you felt was not a result of your skin not being thick enough, but of my heart being too hard. I wish I could turn the clock back and undo the harm I caused you. All I can do, and I know it falls very short, is say, I am truly sorry.