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Words can and do break bones

A personal commentary on the misuse of language

by Gary B. Larson, April 24, 1999

Like many people, I cried recently while watching the evening news. The latest tragic killing of students hit me personally. A young Seattle man I know and love could partially fit the profile of some alleged killers in Littleton, Colorado, or in other school killings around our nation.

While in school, the young man I know often said or did things impulsively that were odd, unusual, wacky, silly or otherwise different from "normal" behavior. As a result, he was misunderstood, harassed, ridiculed and eventually ostracized by his peers. I saw it happen, and it badly hurt him--and those who really know and love him.

Fortunately, this young man, diagnosed years ago with attention deficit disorder and treated for it, has found relatively positive and productive though not mainstream ways to defuse the pain and anger inside him. And so, it appears, has the out-of-the-mainstream peer group he's developed. I have seen that happen too.

I condemn the actions of the alleged killers in Littleton; there is no excusable reason for the choices they made. But I think it's important for each of us to review our individual behavior and how our words and deeds can also hurt people and even help create people like the alleged killers in Colorado. I'm especially thinking of the behavior we model for our young people or accept in our children--not just hateful, violent, murderous behavior but also judging, unaccepting, taunting behavior and verbal abuse.

Besides suffering the discrimination and harassment of racism, sexism and homophobia in our society, too many people have suffered a form of elitism. If some people are different from us, we too easily judge them as less than us. It's an irrational attitude and behavior from which no race, religion, sex, age group, social class, political persuasion or geographic location is immune; I know I'm not. It's especially noticeable among the young, but I am sure it is insidious within the power elite of all groups.

The citizens of Washington state and some other states have decided, unfortunately, to ban government affirmative action programs. But perhaps we can partially replace them, especially in our schools, with "affirmation action" programs--programs that encourage people to be proud not only of their individual differences but also of the differences among their classmates, colleagues, relatives and friends. Excellent, essential diversity programs have been trying to do some of that, but it seems to me they have been constrained by focusing mainly on ethnic differences. The problem is broader and deeper than that.

With apologies, I have modified the following excerpt from a sermon given in various times and places by Martin Niemoller, 1892-1984, a Protestant pastor in Nazi Germany:

First they came for the blacks (and the Latinos and the American Indians and the Asians and the Arabs). I was silent. I was not black (or Latino or American Indian or Asian or Arabian).
Then they came for the gays and lesbians. I was silent. I was not gay or lesbian.
Then they came for the kids with cleft palates, missing limbs, speech defects, and other physical or mental defects. I was silent. I had no such defects.
Then they came for the nerds, dweebs and geeks. I was silent. I was not a nerd, dweeb or geek.
Then they came for the fat, wimpy and ugly kids. I was silent. I was not fat, wimpy or ugly.
Then they came for the kids with attention deficit disorder. I was silent. I did not have attention deficit disorder.
And then they came for me. There was no one left to speak for me.

It's time we finally lay to rest the myth of the childhood nursery rhyme we all learned: Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me. We see far too often on the 5 o'clock evening news how untrue that is.

-- Gary B. Larson, Port Townsend, Washington,
Updated Jan. 23, 2020.

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