If you are of a certain (mature) age, you may remember this childhood saying from the last century:
“Sticks and stones may break my bones,
but names will never hurt me.”
It occurs to me that, in the age of random automatic gunfire in public settings, it seems quaint that the greatest physical harm we once anticipated was a broken bone. But I digress from my real concern for this space, which is the names, or more specifically, the name-calling that we thought would never hurt us.
I have yet to become used to the barrage of name-calling that emanates from the White House these days. I hesitate to say that our dear leader has raised name-calling to an art form, because there is nothing especially artistic in his choice of adjectives for those he targets. Not much imagination is exerted in flinging insults like “nasty,” “crooked,” or the colloquial “lyin’” — even when they are preceded by “very, very” or “really, really.”
But he has raised the issue of name-calling as an impediment to communication. Name-calling lowers conversation to an exercise in disrespect. This is troubling, because, like it or not, our leadership sets standards. As a society, it is problematic for us to try to teach our youngsters to be civil and compassionate when the presidential role model is neither. The previous administration, of course, accustomed us to a high level of diplomacy and elegance in speech, so the contrast with the present is startling. And disheartening.
With the advent of regular name-calling, at organized rallies or via tweet, it’s as if our nation has stepped sideways on the path of being an ever more kind and decent people. The coarsening of discourse at the top indeed has a trickle-down effect. I notice that some people are becoming looser with employing racist or sexist or ethnic slurs in public. We are short with each other. We are dismissive of each other. This disturbing trend is somehow synonymous with “telling it like it is.” But that’s only "like it is" if you allow yourself to be racist or sexist or prejudiced. If we truly treated each other as we ourselves would like to be treated, this mean-spirited state of affairs would not be "like it is."
When we compartmentalize people into a name-call, we reduce them, despite all their glorious individuality, to a label. When we can label a whole group of people, we objectify them. We no longer feel a need to treat them like human beings, or to have any empathy for their experiences. Thus we can look through history and see the danger of name-calling, of cheapening human life, of separating people from their humanity in order to justify their extermination. In its extreme, name-calling precedes genocide. Contrary to the childhood rhyme, names can hurt as much as, or more than, sticks and stones.
Am I worrying too much? Am I going too far? Am I too PC? Maybe calling people “low-energy” or “pathetic” or “dumb as a rock” or “losers in life” or “disgusting” or “bimbo” or “the face of a dog” — and these are all direct quotes from the person who holds the highest office in the land — is perfectly acceptable to some Americans. Maybe some folks delight in gaining permission to belittle and smear other folks, the ones who don’t look or act or think like them. But I do worry, in particular about the current demise of civility leading to far greater destruction. If calling the volatile North Korean dictator “Little Rocket Man” leads to the death of diplomacy, and to nuclear mushroom clouds over our nation, the name-caller-in-chief will bear responsibility. While he will be whisked away to safety in an underground bunker, we regular people will suffer the sticks and stones of radioactive fallout. Thanks, Trump.