“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”
As a kid, I remember slinging this phrase around like ammo. It was, back then at least, something that could render the playground taunts of “meanie” and “tattletale” powerless. We were taught to have thick skin, to be empowered by ourselves and not to let the callous words of others get to us, that it was up to us to decide whether or not the words of others would affect us.
To an extent, of course we know this isn’t wholly true; we know that words have a tangible power to make or break us. There have been countless studies done on how the different kinds of words we use affect others, both mentally and physically. We’re told as little kids that if we don’t have anything nice to say to not say anything at all. It’s been shown time and time again the dark path negative reinforcement can lead some people down, and how in some cases parents are told to raise their children without saying the word no.
In spite of all of that, we learn as we get older that some people truly are all bark and no bite, that we should take what they say with a grain of salt, that words can just be words and we can move on. In modern terms we’d call these people haters or trolls, and there always seems to be some reality TV star or YouTuber coming forward and talking about how they manage to deal with all of the negativity (The New York Times even has an article on how to deal with haters).
When someone is insulted and can turn the other cheek, let it roll off their back without retaliating, they are considered a more mature, more adult individual. We as a culture value the ability to take the moral high ground, and we know that we no longer live in a society dominated by Hammurabi’s Code (hello, freshman World Civ. 1-H!) where it’s an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. We, as mature human beings, have the ability to choose what we say and how we respond, and that is what makes us part of a civilized society.
It seems that in the last ten years we’ve taken a turn. It has become an social obsession, this policing of words, one where no one can express an opinion without it immediately being discredited for offending someone. Suddenly words are bullets that we need to be sheltered from at all times, that they can break us even if we only hear them in passing. Political correctness has slowly been constricting our language, turning college campuses into places where teachers are afraid to do their job for fear that they accidentally “trigger” a student (The Atlantic wrote a great piece on the coddling of the American mind). We’ve become increasingly sensitive, so much so that we deny reality in order to protect our fragile psyche; phrases like “The most qualified person should get the job” made the list of banned offensive statements in a California school district. Beyond universities, we see this constantly in the presidential campaigns. In the case of Donald Trump, not necessarily the Republican Presidential candidate, but the person in general, the most press coverage comes from outrage over callous things he’s said without thought or consideration for the party in question. It is that particular quality that has done him the most PR damage, one that could ultimately cost him the presidency.
The most recent example of this comes from our very own President. This past week, President Obama was scheduled to meet with the Filipino President when it was abruptly canceled after some rather unprofessional things were said by the latter. He’d been elected in May to crack down on the country’s drug (dealing) problem, and his means of doing so (he did encourage citizens to shoot drug dealers if they resisted arrest) have raised human rights concerns, with good reason. When asked how he would respond if Obama were to question him on this, he responded with, “Who does he think he is? I am no American puppet…You must be respectful. Do not just throw away questions and statements. Son of a whore, I will curse you in that forum.” (source)
While I 100% agree that this is not the kind of language the president of any country should use, and that his means to an end are not the most ethical, I am not here to debate the validity of the Filipino president. The fact is our President, the official representative of American people and their culture, despite having nothing in common with the Filipino leader, respected him enough to remain open-minded in this meeting with him. Obama most likely had some very strong opinions on the policies put in place in the Philippines, and yet he held his tongue concerning the matter, even after the crass remark was made. (If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all). All he had to say was “…I have seen some of these colorful statements in the past, and so, clearly, he’s a colorful guy.”
This simple action, seemingly innocuous, a somewhat humorous blip in the news amid a stream of depressing negatives, can be seen as the culmination of years of refinement as a society in the way we use words. It is the perfect balance of restraint and free speech, of an expression of opinion and the appropriate response. Obama responded with class, acknowledging that the Filipino was entitled to his own opinion, and that he didn’t need to fire back. He did not condemn him, or call him out for his rude remark, or get up in arms about his choice of words and the rather politically incorrect connotations they had. No one in the Philippine bureaucracy was fired for this comment being made. Obama survived this overt act of aggression and lived to tell the tale, a success story for college students in universities everywhere. He simply decided that a further meeting was not necessary.
In a small way, he agreed to disagree, and moved on.