The other day in the store I witnessed an impromptu parenting moment and was, to put it mildly, unimpressed.
The woman had with her two children, looked to be about 10 and 8, both boys. The older boy said something quite unflattering and downright mean to the younger boy. The vicious statement he made also included a particularly unpleasant slur.
The adult’s response was swift but, in my opinion, quite misguided. Her response was: “Don’t use that word!”
That’s it. Then she went back to her errands.
Now, I’m not going to criticize the overall moment, devoid of context. I’m a parent, and I know a lot could be going on there. But I’ll happily criticize the general sentiment that I seem to see so oft-repeated, which is that there is such a thing as “bad words.”
People teach that to their kids as a very foolish shorthand for “don’t be mean.” But that’s not the lesson the kids learn, and it’s not the lesson they carry into adulthood. The lesson they carry into adulthood is that if you want to be mean, you also have to solve a puzzle – different words are worth different points, and your goal is to maximize offense and insult without going over the line.
We teach kids that certain words are off-limits instead of teaching them empathy, decorum, and self-control. And in doing so, we also create vulnerability to those same words in these kids – they grow up thinking that certain words are exceptions to the “sticks and stones” rule.
Yes, words – all words – have the power to hurt an undisciplined or vulnerable mind. And no, the fact that words only hurt certain people is not an excuse to use them, claiming “it’s their fault that they weren’t tougher.” We should, always, be kind. And some words in particular carry an awful lot of historical baggage that may make us more aware of their use.
But I posit that we teach the wrong lessons around this, and that we can do better.
If I put a chip in the mind of every human on Earth that completely prevented the use of certain words, and in so doing managed to eliminate a list of all harmful slurs (imagining for a moment that such a list could even be agreed upon), I would have done absolutely nothing to decrease the levels of racism, sexism, or other prejudice that exists in the world. I would not even have eliminated the tools of the “ists” of the world, for the very second they realized they couldn’t employ their previously favored slurs there would be a mad and unholy race to pick the best (worst?) replacement.
A generation of empathetic, kind, morally-upright people wouldn’t use those terms no matter how widely available and free of social consequence they were. We create social consequences for words instead of intent and actions and it makes us do crazy things, like firing one media law professor for discussing a First Amendment case about racial slurs or even firing a business communication professor who was teaching about the Chinese language for using a Chinese word that sort of sounded like an English racial slur.
Those schools fired those teachers, but I don’t blame the schools. The schools are simply responding to incentives from their customer base, as all businesses do. No, the blame lies solely with us for raising children this way. For slacking off in our lessons about politeness and kindness and empathy so that instead we’ve taught that all the bad in humanity is somehow bundled up with certain specific combinations of letters.
I don’t want my children to never use slurs. I want them to never say sentences where such slurs are appropriate components. I want them to never feel in their heart like such a sentence bears value to their hearts and the hearts of humanity. I can say vile, hurtful things in sentences composed of words that, individually, would be appropriate for any kindergarten classroom. That doesn’t make those things okay to say – they are poison for my soul if I let them reside in any mind, my own included.
Make no mistake – that lesson is the harder one to teach. Dealing with anger, pain, or jealousy in a healthy way, being compassionate to other humans (even those that are not compassionate to you) and understanding the eternal importance of even, civil discourse are all great challenges to developing minds and the mentors helping them to grow. But we mustn’t shirk those duties, and we certainly can’t be fooled – as I believe many of us have been – by the idea that policing a subset of those words will do the aforementioned for us. We have fallen into the false belief that if we simply impose enough social consequences on certain words, then people will automatically become the moral beacons we should have been raising all along.
Words are a symptom; an outpouring of what is in our minds and our hearts. A holy tongue cannot be attached to an unholy soul, but a holy soul will not seek poison for its tongue, even if it’s available.