Words matter

Recently I heard a television news report about the suicide death of a teenage girl in Florida.  The report stated she was “bullied in cyberspace” by more than a dozen girls and could no longer stand the pain.  Her mother poignantly asked of those who bullied her daughter, “Who teaches them the hate?”

A very good question.

This young girl, press reports say she was 12, was first bullied at school and then the bullying followed her home on Facebook. Even after switching schools and closing down the Facebook site the bullying continued via other social media.

It is hard for me to understand how anyone can be “terrorized” in “cyberspace.”  But I am more than half a century older than this girl. We may as well be from different planets. I am wise enough to see that today’s children and teenagers inhabit a world that is far different from the one in which I “came of age.”

I remember being bullied but it was contained to school. When I came home I knew I was safe. When I was twelve my parents moved us from Massachusetts to Florida and I switched from public school to parochial. That school switch prompted some bullying but it probably also saved me because we wore uniforms. My parents were not wealthy and, as a culture, we had begun to enter an age in which “branding” was everything. The “right” shoes, dress, car…all of it became so important because everything we read or saw said it was.

So, is it the “branding” that teaches us hate? To a certain extent I think the answer is yes. Many children have so much material wealth with no sense of how it arrives and the tribal nature of children encourages cohesion and exclusion based on what is most familiar and comfortable.

But I also think of the time in which this young girl lived. She was born in 2000 and in the whole of her life she only knew war and divisiveness. War in Iraq and Afghanistan, divisiveness … everywhere.  Elections, Congress, TV talking heads, gangs, Fox vs. CNN, Apple v. PC, and on and on.  She was bombarded daily by thousands of words, not all of them very nice words and the majority of them thoughtless–as in without thought.

When they eventually identify the 12-15 girls who cyber-bullied this young twelve year-old I am sure that one of them will say, “Well, I never thought ________.”  Fill in the blank. You know what it will be. Another pathetic apology about the sin of not thinking that words matter.

And that is where this story becomes so sad to me. According to the report I saw this young girl, Rebecca Ann Sedwick, wrote the following:

“How many lives have to be lost until people realize that words do matter?”

Oh, Rebecca.  My heart was already aching for you but these words pierced my soul because they are SO true. Words do matter and our society has forgotten that. We seem to be moving at light speed away from the understanding of words and their value.

Several years ago I overheard two young colleagues talking to each other and one used the expression “ ’Ho” in referring to the other.  Something like “You ‘ho.”  I couldn’t bear it any longer and I called them to task. “Words matter,” I said. “If you call her a ‘ho she becomes a ‘ho.”  They both looked at me with that look the young give the old.  It plainly states, “You don’t understand.”

The one who had used the term tried to defend it and the recipient of the description waved it off, as if to say “It’s nothing.”

“You don’t understand,” I said.  “Language is the bedrock of society. If our language deteriorates so will our culture. Words are important.”

They both looked at me differently and the one who had used the phrase became thoughtful. “Language is the bedrock of society…,” she said.  “I have never thought of words in that way.”

For Rebecca’s sake, let’s please start thinking about our words.

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