Sticks and Stones

Issue #34 – Thursday, April 16, 2015

by Sandy Pierre

Sticks and stones may break my bones
But words will never hurt me

American kids learn this rhyme early on. (Do other cultures have a comparable nursery rhyme? I’d be interested to find out.)  I just looked up Sticks and Stones on Wikipedia. Interestingly, it points out that the rhyme reflects the common law of civil assault, “which holds that mere name-calling does not give rise to a cause of action, while putting someone in fear of physical violence does”. It ties in nicely with the Non-Aggression Principle (NAP), the foundational precept of libertarian philosophy.  The NAP states that each person has the right to do as he wishes, so long as he doesn’t aggress against others. Aggression is defined as the initiation of force or fraud.

Another thing Wikipedia points out is that there are two versions of the rhyme. In the version above, the second line is “But words will never hurt me”. In the other it’s “But words will never harm me”.  To me the distinction is so subtle as to have passed right by me. But a fellow writer pointed it out to me, and upon further reflection, there is indeed a difference in meaning between the two.  “Hurt” generally refers to “bodily injury or pain”.  “Harm”, on the other hand, can refer to physical injury or mental damage.

The reason this nursery rhyme is on my mind is because I’ve recently witnessed several incidents where good people, who are also fine libertarians, have gone at each others’ throats verbally. I’ve allowed myself to become embroiled in one or two such verbal “bar brawls”.  I also observed someone with whom I was romantically involved publicly talk about me in, shall we say, and ungentlemanly manner.  And just now, after reading what is, hands down, the nastiest discussion thread I’ve ever seen in my eight+ years on social media, I’ve decided I don’t believe in the NAP anymore.

Let me clarify what I mean. I’m not suggesting that any form of speech should be illegal. It’s just that I no longer believe that the NAP alone is sufficient upon which to base a free human society.  Not by a long shot.

Something I’ve struggled with for many years is a tendency to over-sensitivity.  I allow myself to care too much what other people think, or don’t think, about me.  I’ve attempted to overcome this weakness by reminding myself of the “Four Agreements” outlined in a New Age-y but quite wise little book by Don Miguel Ruiz. The Four Agreements are as follows:

  1. Be impeccable with your word.
  2. Don’t take anything personally.
  3. Don’t make assumptions.
  4. Always do your best.

It’s incredible how much territory these four simple rules cover, and how much pain you can eliminate from your own life if you live by them.

Forgive me if it seems like I’ve gone off on a tangent, but I believe this is relevant to my original point. The children’s rhyme that ends with “words can never hurt me” (the rest is implied: unless I allow them to do so), and the second of the Four Agreements, “Don’t take ANYTHING personally”, remain true.  However, like the NAP, they are insufficient.

Words to Harm

Words have meaning, and they are spoken with intent.  If another person makes horribly insulting, nasty, degrading remarks, about you or someone you care about, in a clear attempt to hurt and humiliate, they may be unsuccessful in causing you mental anguish. But the fact remains that they were trying to do so.

It seems strange to me that the NAP focuses solely on physical force, when an assault with words can hurt so much worse, and linger so much longer (in some cases, forever). A simple slap in the face or punch in the jaw may be momentarily painful, may even leave a bruise or a broken bone… but bruises fade, bones mend.  The pain caused by words can last a lifetime. And once said, words can never be unsaid.

In addition to words that are spoken with the primary intent of causing emotional pain, there are words that, if spoken, can forever alter another’s life. They may be 100% true, but they are the verbal equivalent of neutron bombs and should be wielded with terrible care.  This is a concept which numerous libertarians I’ve known over the years seem to have trouble with. Just because something is true doesn’t mean you should say/write it!

Here are just a few examples, taken both from my own life, and the lives of friends, of things that, once said or read, can alter another’s perception and thereby change their life forever:

  • You’re a lousy singer/writer/artist/actor/mother/___fill in the blank with your own vulnerable point____
  • I don’t trust you anymore
  • I haven’t loved you for years
  • I cheated on you
  • Your partner cheated on you
  • The child you thought was yours… isn’t

Libertarians tend to be an intellectual bunch. A disproportionate number have the Myers-Briggs personality type INTJ, which is relatively uncommon in the population at large. So why does a group of people who not only focus on the intellectual realm, but pride themselves on doing so, downplay or dismiss the lethality of the weapon which is the spoken or written word?

Words to Manipulate

Another manner in which words can be used as weapons is lying.  Again, it’s the intent that is at issue here.  The intent of lying is to willfully manipulate someone by feeding them information which the liar knows to be false. I looked up the definition of fraud to confirm that not all acts of lying constitute a NAP violation: “deceit, trickery, sharp practice, or breach of confidence, perpetrated for profit or to gain some unfair or dishonest advantage.” There are many ways to lie that don’t qualify as fraud. A classic example is “No, honey, that doesn’t make you look fat!”. And there are many motivations for lying which aren’t so much nefarious as pitiable: fear; a desire to avoid confrontation; a desire to present yourself to others as more impressive or desirable than you actually are.

Being lied to may cause you to take an action you otherwise wouldn’t have, or to avoid taking an action you really should have much sooner. Catching someone lying to you may very well forever change your assessment of that person’s character and influence how you decide to interact with them going forward.

Words to Persuade

Words are also used to persuade. In fact, this is a necessity in a society based on non-aggression.  People don’t all want the same things, and in order to come to agreement without the use of violence, it’s necessary to convince them to change their minds, or at least to acquiesce to your own desires even if they continue to disagree with you.  There’s not necessarily anything nefarious about persuasion.

The dividing line between persuasion and emotional manipulation is a bit fuzzy, though.  I once experienced what I considered to be a truly sleazy sales pitch where the woman doing the hard sell on me repeatedly probed to discover my emotional weaknesses, then claimed that the seminar she was selling would fill all the gaps in my life.

Protip: just because something doesn’t violate the NAP doesn’t mean it’s not a shitty thing to do.

According to Wikipedia, the Sticks and Stones rhyme dates to the mid-nineteenth century.  But there’s a much older expression that spans many cultural traditions and nicely encapsulates the spirit of the NAP and then some, not restricting itself only to the realm of force and fraud: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Again, I’m not suggesting that any form of speech, including lying, insulting, manipulating, or the most egregious statements of racism/sexism/bigotry, should be illegal.  I believe everyone should be free to say whatever he wants, even to be the biggest asshole he can be.  But that doesn’t mean I want to hang around you, even if you do honor the NAP assiduously.  It takes much more than that to be a decent human being.

Here’s a helpful Buddhist expression: “before you open your mouth, think 1) is it true and 2) is it helpful”.

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