Sticks and Stones
by Elena Greco
Credit: Blaze Press
Typical reading time: 7 minutes
April 9, 2015
We need to communicate with others. It seems obvious, doesn’t it? In order to come to agreement about pressing issues, in order to create positive change in our world, we have to have a dialogue—with friends, with enemies, with other political parties, with other countries.
I have to admit that at the moment I am throwing up my hands in despair. Because it seems that we cannot even have a dialogue—a simple, respectful discussion—on social media, for example, without individuals calling each other names, denigrating each other or attempting to intimidate others who air a dissimilar view. No discourse, no polite discussion, no careful consideration or weighing of views, just instant knee-jerk attack—of the person, not the view. Don’t agree with a post? Clobber the person who wrote it, with hateful words, with names, with finger-pointing. With this sort of communication, or lack of it, there is no hope – no hope for us, for our country or for our planet.
Sticks and stones may break my bones,
But names will never hurt me.
Remember this old rhyme from childhood? Is it true? Is it true that names don’t hurt people? Well, perhaps they don’t hurt us physically—although that is a matter for debate, as there is some indication that physiology can be affected by verbal shaming and aggression—but they do cause harm. Perhaps most importantly, they prevent real communication from happening. Is it possible, now that we are adults, to discuss a difference in beliefs without calling people names? And why name-calling? Is it an expression of hatred or disdain of someone because they have a different view from yours? Then maybe we should just be honest and say, “I hate you because you have a different belief from mine.”
Reactions that include slandering someone simply because you disagree with their view come from the same mindset as witch-burning—labeling people with no proof, sometimes simply out of spite or aggression, with no basis. Why don’t we just throw eggs at each other? Wouldn’t that be the same thing? Isn’t name-calling the verbal equivalent of violence? Is there another way we can make ourselves feel superior and feed our ego other than denigrating someone else publicly, thereby destroying the possibility for progress? Can we maybe be a little more civilized in expressing our differing opinions, rather than attacking each other, which just strengthens the divide between us as communities, as a nation, as a world.
I was finally pushed to write this blog post as a result of a Facebook post by an environmental organization which encouraged users to click on a link to sign a petition to oppose the Keystone pipeline. This is an issue I’m totally aligned with, so I clicked on the link to sign. What came up was an ad with a professional-looking photo that said at the top “JERKS.” A national environmental organization had resorted to childish name-calling. I did not sign the petition, and instead looked for another organization to support.
And recently I saw another example. A man absolutely trashed a woman who had posted a blog about nutrition because he had a different view from hers. He repeatedly called her an idiot in various ways and implied that she shouldn’t be free to publish her blog since he disagreed. Does he think that because he disagrees with her view (a) she shouldn’t be allowed to exercise free speech, (b) I shouldn’t be allowed to read it, although I might want to, and (c) she should be publicly denigrated as a human being because she has an opinion that is different from his?
When you verbally attack the person rather than the belief or opinion, you have committed a psychologically aggressive act. If you call me a name, automatically I assume a defensive posture because I’ve been assaulted. Only verbally, it’s true, but it has some of the same effects as if I had been assaulted physically. It certainly does not allow me to see you as someone I would want to listen to. And if you don’t want me to listen to you, you might ask yourself exactly what your purpose is.
Are we completely losing the civilization that we’ve developed for these many centuries? It seems to me that we’re going backwards in that regard—becoming less civilized and more barbaric and crass in our communication and in our actions. Surely we should be adult enough to focus on the issues and not call each other names, like children. I think we can. I think we can do better. I think that awareness of this issue is much needed, an awareness of how much of this bad behavior is exhibited on a daily basis on social media, television and in the news, and how much it negatively affects the possibility of allowing the best of human nature to flourish. Only through awareness can we make a change in our efforts and intention to communicate effectively.
I think some of what is going on is that seeing things like this constantly in print, on social media, in news sources, and even on the evening news, seeps into our psyche and on some level begins to make us think it’s OK; it lets our own moral compass slip away (if we let it).
Another reason might be that a person enjoys inflating their own ego by making someone else smaller. This is nothing new, but if that’s their purpose, they might pause to think how that makes them appear to others. When a man calls a woman an idiot on social media, does that make him seem smart to his Facebook Friends? Does showing a lack of vocabulary and intelligence by calling someone a name common to the schoolyard make a person seem sophisticated and powerful to others? Hurling expletives or insulting the other person removes any credibility you might have. It makes you look crass and unintelligent. Would you be interested in the views of someone of that character? Expressing yourself well in words makes you seem erudite and intelligent, someone who has considered what they say, someone people might want to listen to.
Any good cult knows that if they want to change your mind and get you to join them, they first need to make you feel that they’re on your side. They don’t start off with telling you that you’re stupid if you don’t believe their dogma. They make you feel that you’re special, that they understand, that they’re one of you. What about advertisers who want you to believe in their product? Do they show you how stupid you are for not using their product? No, they show you images that make you think they’re just like you and that they’re trying to make your life better and more pleasurable. I’m not suggesting that we should be in the least inauthentic or manipulative, but simply that we might take a look at how those who are masters of persuasion go about it and apply some of what they know to our communication.
All right, so if name-calling precludes communication, what then constitutes healthy and effective communication? How do we communicate disagreement without ending dialogue?
First and foremost real communication requires a basic respect for the other as a fellow human being. Without that fundamental position, communication does not happen. If you don’t think the person you’re speaking to has the same potential you do as a human being, you might as well not bother.
Communicating also means listening, really listening, to someone else. Any time we are not truly listening to someone on all levels, any time we are relating to them as an object, simply meeting our own needs at their expense (such as bolstering our own ego by deprecating them), we are violating their boundaries. Once boundaries are violated, real or effective communication can no longer occur.
There’s a way of listening to people that opens communication and fosters change. For example, when engaging in a discussion, rather than thinking about what you’re going to say next, see if you can really hear what the other person is saying, and possibly imagine yourself in their shoes as you listen to them. Yes, even if you think they’re wrong. Use whatever means you can to avoid having a reaction to what they’re saying, instead trying hard to understand it. People can feel this kind of listening, and it makes them feel comfortable and non-defensive, so that they can be more receptive to your view when you offer it.
It also means reading beyond the headline or the first sentence. If someone takes the time to write several sentences, or even several paragraphs, to express their view to the best of their ability, then you can surely take 30 seconds of your time to read it and use your intelligence to consider it before you respond. Instead of hurling insults because you gather from the first sentence, or worse, only the headline, that the person has a different view from yours, take the time to really read what they wrote and then write a sentence or two expressing your own view, keeping the focus on yourself rather than the other person. Not only will that further the dialogue and create the possibility for changing the other person’s mind—instead of causing them to recoil from you and become even further entrenched in their own belief—it will let you become clearer on your own position and allow you to speak with more authority.
One important way of communicating about volatile subjects is to always keep the focus on ourselves, on how we feel or what we believe, and not on what we think about the other person. If you say something that I think is particularly asinine, for example, instead of denigrating you because you have that belief, I can simply state my own belief.
If I call you a name, automatically you assume a defensive posture, and rightly so since you’ve been attacked. And that precludes any possibility for communication and change. Instead I can say, “I have a different view; here’s what I believe,” and state my case, hopefully with intelligence. That not only gives my view an audience; it allows for the possibility that you might actually change your view once you see things the way that I see them.
Do you see the difference? Saying I don’t like your view is not the same thing as saying you ARE something reprehensible. This might seem a small difference, but it is actually a HUGE step toward communicating effectively in a manner that allows the other person room to communicate with you, as opposed to violating their boundaries through name-calling, which totally precludes communication.
Another possibly useful way to start a conversation is to find some common ground, perhaps not even in the realm of the issue at hand, but in something that you share. You’re both parents, perhaps, or you’re both in a certain profession, or there’s something you agree upon. That can be the foundation of starting a dialogue.
I am a liberal Democrat. Yet I have some friends who are Republicans. How is this possible? It is possible because I believe them to be intelligent people who have come to a different conclusion than I have. I don’t base my assessment of them as human beings solely on political views. Also, I am not a fan of organized religion, yet I have friends from virtually every religion in existence, and from a number of different faiths within those religions (the only exception being cult members, as I believe they have lost the ability to communicate in a healthy manner). We respectfully disagree, and we agree to disagree, all the while enjoying our commonalities. I do have standards for my friends, but requiring them to agree with me on all views is not one of them.
I believe that if we surround ourselves with only people who mirror our own beliefs, we run the risk of becoming slaves to those beliefs, never questioning them, and possibly becoming rigidly ensconced in a belief system that does not serve us or the world. If we engage respectfully with those whose beliefs are different, we have the opportunity not only to change their minds, but also to constantly reevaluate and clarify our own positions for ourselves so that we retain the ability to reason.
If we want to create change, we need to be able to communicate with people whose beliefs are different from ours, or whose actions we don’t approve of.
I’ll tell you something, some of the best communicators I know of belong to my Facebook goat group. (Yes, folks, I belong to a goat group; most of you don’t know it, but I’m a little obsessed with goats—I love goats!) Most of the members of the Facebook goat group are farmers or people who raise goats. When someone posts a question about a goat problem (they actually have quite a few), everyone does their best to come up with a solution for the goat owner. I have never seen anyone disparage another poster; if they disagree, they simply post what they believe to be a better solution. People compliment the goat (there’s always a picture, since everyone is proud of their goat), and they treat the owner with great respect. I have never seen anyone denigrate a goat owner or call them (or the goat) names. They are wonderful communicators! (As are goats…)
As our political landscape becomes more and more bizarre, it seems to be more important than ever that we communicate well and effectively so that we can promote change. Can we perhaps be more like goat farmers in our communication with each other? Whether on social media, on the news, in person or in a public place, can we state our own position respectfully and with intelligence and good manners instead of hurling names at each other like spoiled children?
If not, I believe I will go live on a goat farm…
Elena Greco is a professional writer, singer, producer/director and integrative counselor. Her specialties as a counselor are trauma and communication. As a writer, she maintains a personal blog and has been published in national publications, including Psychology Today and Classical Singer; she has two new books coming out on Kindle soon. She writes about the creative arts, psychology, communication, persuasion, health, social issues, culture and politics. She is founder, producer and director of EGMP, a company which offers a different kind of entertainment, one which actively and uniquely engages both performers and audience, presenting projects that entertain, educate and enliven, through music, visual art, technology and other creative expressions that expand the senses. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or find her on the web at www.elenagreco.com.