For reasons that are completely beyond me we have taken the concept of “politically correct” and “offensive” to levels well beyond where it was intended to go. I know I’m not the only one that was raised with this phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” Anyone remember that? Did anyone learn the lesson of it?
It seems like ever since I learned that lesson, as a child, everyone from teachers to politicians to celebrities to journalists have been trying to tell me how much words hurt. Words hurt self-esteem (bullying). Words hurt confidence (taunting). Words hurt trust (lying). Words hurt intimacy (yelling, lying, belittling). Words hurt privacy (gossip). Words hurt community (betrayal). Words hurt national security (treason). While it is true that words can hurt, let’s think about where that pain comes from.
If you read, in private, the most harsh words ever spoken to (or about you) in a book or a newspaper and they were describing something that happened to someone somewhere else and didn’t involve you at all…would they still hurt you?
If you are a black person and you saw the video of Riley Cooper saying what he said, what impact did that have on you? If you are not a black person and heard about it, what impact did it have on you? Do these two situations have the same impact? Of course not, the statement speaks explicitly to one group of people over the other.
Now imagine you were the black security guard that he was saying it about. You are present and in the moment. There is no doubt he is referring to you, as well as to any other black people in attendance. Does it have the same impact on you as on a black person hearing about it on the news nearly a month later? Of course not, you were in the moment, at the place, and one of the targets of the statement. No one that wasn’t there could really feel what you felt in that time and in that place.
Now imagine that instead of just seeing the video of this occurrence (if you missed it, click the link above), you simply read about it in a newspaper. Same impact to you? Not likely. The same event and the same words but they have a very different impact on you depending on who you are, what you are, and if you were there. Now imagine instead of it being Riley Cooper (a white professional football player, it was Floyd Mayweather Jr. (a black professional boxer)…what effect would it have on you? Would it matter if he said it with an “er” or with an “a”? He’s a boxer, so fighting wouldn’t be out of character for him. What if it was Eddie Griffin (a black professional comedian)? What then? He’s not known for fighting but…
This isn’t a diatribe on the use of the word nigger, this is about what the impact of the word “all by itself” is. There is certainly an impact on words depending on who is using them, but beyond that it is far more about how they use it (context), what they mean to do with it (intent) and how they said it (implicit inflection). If you think I’m wrong, watch the video of Riley Cooper again, but this time turn the volume off. If you just watch his actions, you know he was mad and he was ready to fight someone. If you could hear the volume and inflection in his voice without specifically hearing his words, it would tell you the same thing. If you substituted the word nigger for kangaroo or clown or unicorn, you’d be pretty sure either the SPCA, Ringling Brothers, or a the author of a fantasy novel would be calling security.
Some of you may be wondering why I bring up Riley Cooper when the latest incident with Donald Sterling (at-the-moment owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers) is so fresh in everyone’s mind. The reason I bring Mr. Cooper’s incident up, is that it is clear that his “use of words” was intended to cause a fight, to intimidate, to belittle, and to demean. Mr. Sterling, on the other hand, used his words differently. While his history shows that he’s not really a fan of black people, unless they can dribble or dunk a basketball, his “use of words” was about his desire for his girlfriend to not openly associate with black people and not bring black people around him (while he watches his highly-paid team full of black people play basketball against another highly-paid team full of black people). He went so far as to tell his girlfriend (who is half-black), that she could have sex with black people…and he specifically named Magic Johnson…but not bring them to games.
This brand of racism (which it is) is much more passive and less incendiary, at least until you let sports reporters and media journalists get a hold of it. Beyond that, he didn’t even use the most hated words. I’m not defending Mr. Sterling and I believe his views really shouldn’t be associated with an owner in a league that features mostly black athletes…that really sends the wrong message. That said, I have two very different takes on Mr. Sterling’s and Mr. Cooper’s “use of words”. The first was effectively ridden to the gallows for passive racism and the second got less than a slap on the wrist for aggressive racism (though he also plays in a league that sports a majority of black athletes).
Still, this is all trivial to me. Neither man is in my life, any more than Floyd Mayweather Jr., Eddie Griffin, or Magic Johnson. They’re words, no matter how they’re said, don’t do ANYTHING to me, unless I let them. My mother used to say “if someone called you a car, does that make you a car?” The answer, of course, is no. The point is that a person’s words don’t change who you are. They might tell you something about who they are or what they mean or what they believe, but even that is speculation unless you have more evidence to corroborate that impression. Still, the choice of whether or not a person’s words are given the power to hurt me, is my choice on whether or not I give them that power. For me, I’ll keep hurtful words powerless…I’ve got enough to worry about from sticks and stones.