“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” Just about the least true snippet of folk wisdom that one can imagine. If ever there were a prize for wishful thinking, then this would be the outright, all-time winner.
This weekend Clare Balding lodged a complaint with the Press Complaints Commission over AA Gill’s description of her as “a dyke on a bike”. And it’s probably this category of hurtful words that to our modern sensibilities most often gives the lie to the proverb’s complacent notion that hurts are physical rather than rhetorical. The category in question is that of the use of taboo words to describe groups of people that have historically frequently been abused (and by no means only verbally) but which, in enlightened minds anyway, are now to be protected from continued exposure to such vilification. Despite the knee-jerk response from tabloid thinkers to complaints like Clare Balding’s that this is political correctness gone mad, such sensitivities to language are not simply hypersensitivity on the part of those on the receiving end.
In fact, ironically, the objections have little or nothing to do with the words themselves. The PC gone mad brigade often point to the use of the very same words on their own account by members of the groups concerned. But this is to misunderstand entirely. Yes, it is true that lesbians may frequently use the word “dyke” to describe one another; that Afro-Caribbeans and African-Americans routinely talk about “niggas”; that “poof” is very likely to be part of male gay discourse; and that “cunt” is now almost a de rigueur word for everyone seeking to demonstrate their escape from linguistic straitjackets of all kinds.
These facts are not an indication that words have lost their power to hurt and intimidate, and that we can all now relax and call a spade a spade. On the contrary. Taking over the words that your most virulent opponents and persecutors use to describe you has always been a potent way of demonstrating that the power of those words is not total, and that in that sense words are only words, after all. Gay men deciding to call their musical group “7 Poofs and a Piano” is not the same thing at all as a virulent homophobe screeching, “Poofs!” across the street at two men holding hands.
And here we come to the most profound way in which the sticks and stones proverb misses the point. It posits verbal hurt as the alternative to physical hurt, as if there’s a choice being exercised by the perpetrators. That if they only insult you verbally, they are restraining themselves from the more serious insult of imposing physical damage. The truth is less pretty. Verbal insult leads to, and legitimises, physical insult. They are not two alternatives: one is the escalation of the other. In the area of sexuality this point is beautifully and ironically brought out by The Pansy Project. Maybe “pansy” is no longer the insult of choice for the homophobe, but Paul Harfleet’s work of planting actual pansies at the site of homophobic violence takes the reclamation of the language of oppression to a whole new and symbolic level.
So Clare Balding is right to object, and to complain. This is not about being over-sensitive or needing to grow a thicker skin. This is about refusing to allow language to continue to be the harbinger of violence and discrimination.