There seems to be a stage of childhood when bullying takes on a verbal character. We have all heard, experienced, or been the perpetrator of the playground name-calling attack. From the rather tame accusation of “chicken” aimed at goading us into something we don’t want to do, to the more serious and often vulgar jabs thrown at those we really despise, many are guilty and many more have been victims.
The experience is so common, a simple saying was devised to inoculate against potential harm. Recited to the bully, it was intended to reassure us verbal abuse was not nearly as effective as other types of abuse. What was this magical incantation? Simply this: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.
Today, the wisdom and truth of this ancient proverb has been replaced with a modern version which makes the sting of the verbal bully equivalent to the most violent and bloody attack of a physical assailant. The current saying would go something like this: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words cause irreparable damage to my psyche.
Damage to the psyche is dreaded far more than mere physical attacks. Broken bones heal, but the psyche never will, we are assured. The emotional injury caused by hateful words will leave lasting scars from which the victim will never recover, causing life-long suffering, anguish, and pain. In other words, better to have sticks and stones hurled your way than verbal taunts.
Portraying the human psyche as a delicate, fragile flower seems bad enough, but the modern mind has lowered the bar on what constitutes a vicious verbal assault to such a low level one fears the precious petals must be sealed behind a glass enclosure – only to be seen from a distance but never touched – lest the slightest disturbance send them falling irreplaceably to the ground.
What has brought us to the point where simply questioning the beliefs of young adults on college campuses constitutes a trigger, sending them running for the nearest safe-zone where they no longer feel threatened?
The intellectual vogue of this early 21st century is to place everything in the realm of opinion. Contemporary intellectuals teach us nothing can be known with absolute certainty. Every belief is equally valid. While truth once was considered that which conformed to reality, today truth and reality must conform to what an individual wants to believe. We are all free – so say the modern intellectuals – to create our own realities and define our own truths.
Herein lies the problem. Reality is not subjective. Reality is objective. If it were the other way around we could not interact in any meaningful way. We would have no shared reality. In essence, every man would be an island, a reality unto himself.
Once, it was possible to laugh at the verbal taunts hurled at us because we were sure of who we were and what we believed. Those insulting us were ignorant of the truth. Their words did not conform with reality. Now we are forced to consider their words as truth and their accusations real because every opinion expressed must be held to be the truth. This outside intrusion from someone unwilling to accept the private island we have constructed for ourselves shatters our fragile, self-made reality. And when reality is shattered, so is the psyche.
We try to stop bullying by insisting everyone must be accepted on their own terms, the way they want to be rather than the way they are meant to be. We leave children to drift about, searching for their true selves, never knowing who they are until someone else tells them. They are vulnerable. It is our misguided attempt to protect them by shielding them from reality which has made them so.
We must once again teach our children to accept who they are and who they were meant to be. We must liberate them from a world of fantasy so the can live freely and unafraid in the world of reality. They must learn mere words have no impact on truth and the sting of verbal slings and arrows is a trifle easily cast aside.