STICKS AND STONES AND STRESS GENES
The days of “sticks and stones” are largely past us. Words now have the capacity for much wider exposure. As a result, more people are held accountable for what they say. And with so much readily available misinformation comes the rise of “fake news.”
It’s hard denying the importance of words. Everyone on the planet has been deeply impacted by something once said to them. It’s why verbal fights feel so awful and compliments warm us. Great public speakers and authority figures often hold the power of sway. The best and most persuasive leaders have, in fact, been great orators (for better or worse). Add to this the research that words have the capacity to change our brains, and “sticks and stones” carries less weight. We don’t have to look far to see the real-life effects of this.
HOW THIS PLAYS OUT UNDER OUR CURRENT SOCIOPOLITICAL CLIMATE
Under a Trump administration, bigotry has been emboldened, hate crimes have increased, and the value of objective truth has diminished. Beyond his words, though, Trump’s rise to presidency acts as a powerful symbol. Based on a study conducted from two professors of business and law, “...it was not just Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric throughout the political campaign that caused hate crimes to increase... it was Trump’s subsequent election as President of the United States that may have validated this rhetoric in eyes of perpetrators and fueled the hate crime surge.”
Politicians and corporations denying climate change aggravate the damage we’re doing to the planet because those who can do the most refuse to take action. Anti-vaxxers spurred the onset of diseases we haven’t seen in these numbers in years. Misinformation feeds like a fire. Mix in a strong emotional element (like the fear that your child will develop autism) and the flames are magnified.
MY OWN RUN-INS WITH RHETORIC
Words don’t necessarily have to be positive or negative to make an impact. Throughout high school and college, nearly all my English teachers were tough. They expected a lot and held their students to a high standard. I always liked the teachers my classmates hated because I enjoyed the challenge. Hearing these teachers explain their expectations in class or getting an essay back littered with red ink only made me work harder. And when I was successful and received praise, it felt that much more gratifying because I knew it was genuine. The words held more power in their honesty.
On the other side of the coin, I had a science teacher in middle school whose actual teaching style I can't recall since it was wholly overshadowed by his callous personality. He routinely singled out the insecurities of pre-pubescents and laid them out in front of the class. He once told my friend she had a “pepperoni face” because of her acne. He criticized me for wearing an oversized Winnie the Pooh shirt (to hide the weight I was gaining) instead of dressing up for school like kids used to do. His comments humiliated while stunting the opportunity for an open, fruitful learning experience. (Maybe this is why I ended up in the arts and not in science.)
A MATTER OF SOCIAL TRUST
Normally I’m not one to endorse personal policing. You can’t control what people do or say, but you can control how you respond to it. There are certain interactions that are better shrugged off. This doesn’t, however, lift the responsibility from the provocateurs. People should be held to a certain standard over the things they say, especially those in power—especially when we see the measured psychological and physical effects.
The reason the public puts so little trust in politicians is just that—we can’t trust what they say. We’re a social species and many of us are actually skilled at picking up when someone isn’t being genuine. We can even distinguish a fake laugh over a real one. Our social traits are what make us take the words of others seriously. Our need for trust is why we buy into brands that give us a sense of security or well-being. But as misinformation becomes more sophisticated, we may not be as good at picking up on the fakes. Many are already buying into these trickeries in the forms of election scams, phishing, and the like—made more ubiquitous with technology.
Language has proven to hold restorative power. In a recent interview with David Letterman, Melinda Gates discussed her work with impoverished areas of India, specifically with a group of people known as “rat eaters” (the poorest of the poor who often have to eat rats to stave off hunger). Marginalized even among the poor, these people are made to feel so worthless to wear a name like “rat eater.” Thanks to local Sister Sudha, she started a school to provide an education for the girls in this community. Once these girls were told they were worthy and capable of a bright future, there was a distinct shift in their personalities—from lowering their eyes to the ground to making eye contact, smiling, displaying confidence.
Language, for all its shortcomings and limitations, is a major vehicle into how we connect and interact with each other. It’s why bedtime stories and prayers and musical lyrics have an impact us. If everyone handled their words with compassion, honesty, and generosity, we’d live in a very different world.