“Sticks and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you.” Most, if not all, of The Jewish Chronicle’s readership are familiar with the saying and that its philosophy has served generations of children and adults.
The adage in a similar form appeared in the March 1862 edition of “The Christian African Methodist Episcopal Church” bulletin and again in 1872, in “Tappy’s Chicks: and Other Links Between Nature and Human Nature” as a tool to combat social humiliation.
Emotional survival is hardly a term most of us fear, yet a present-day author, Jack Zipes, writes in his 2002 book, “Sticks and Stones: The Troublesome Success of Children’s Literature from Slovenly Peter to Harry Potter,” about how many children’s books are more about humanity than specific children in a real world.
No matter what century, culture or context, this feeling left over from the saying refers to 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.
Author Tom DeMarco dedicated one chapter of his 2001 book, “Slack — Getting Past Burnout, Busywork, and the Myth of Total Efficiency,” to the phrase. There he writes about changes in organization that are only possible with the security that people struggling with new ideas won’t be laughed at. In comparison, he says that fear (e.g. of breaking your neck) doesn’t prevent people from learning. Bottom line for him: Words can actually hurt more than sticks and stones.
Current cutting-edge science confirms that verbal abuse or social humiliation (even on Facebook) “feels” much more painful and damaging to the psyche than physical damage.
Now that the domestic violence movement is more than 30 years old and the conversation is out of the shelters and into the classrooms, boardrooms and bedrooms of everyday people, we are all ready to hear new discussions such as the ones that were presented at the Feb. 19 Language of Change 2015 event and Jackson Katz’s March 4 clergy gathering, both at Rodef Shalom Congregation. These programs have brought the newer term of primary prevention into the light, especially for people of faith — clergy and those working in faith-based institutions. This theory bases its proof and testing challenge by altering the environment from which boys and men, and even women and girls, allow language to shape total worth and social position. The engagement of men and boys is a primary piece of the solution.
I suggest you join a discussion, and if you don’t have one near you, ask a rabbi, minister, nurse, teacher or advocate, and he or she will find or start one for you. Rodef Shalom brought the issue of change to a new level. The week’s appearance of the movement’s foremost expert, Jackson Katz, Ph.D., excited faith leaders to action and, thus, the larger prize of social change. We must chip away at the bedrock on which domestic violence has been able to survive for thousands of years.
Rochelle R. Sufrin is a member of Jewish Women International’s National Leadership Council and is co-chair of the International Council of Domestic Violence Coalitions. She is the former interim director of the Jewish Domestic Abuse Task Force of Pittsburgh.