The well-known nursery rhyme, heard throughout the land, would have us believe that ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.’ It suggests that we are impervious to the hurt that language can inflict. But that is simply not true.
Like many others I was shocked to hear of the death of Jacinda Saldanha, the nurse at King Edward’s Hospital who unwittingly took part in a prank phone call from an Australian radio station.
Her death is a tragedy for her family, her friends and her colleagues; it is a tragedy for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and it is a tragedy for the Australian broadcasters.
The danger of language, of a few carefully or carelessly strewn phrases, has long been the stuff of compelling drama. Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ has as one of its central themes the power of words.
Othello is a general, a man of Egyptian descent who has won his place in Venetian society through his bravery and leadership. He marries the beautiful Desdemona, much to the displeasure of her father – a man who cannot see beyond Othello’s colour. The story is about many things, but the action centres upon the ‘revenge’ enacted on Othello by one whom the general trusts beyond all others. Iago’s control and understanding of the power of language makes him very dangerous, particularly when he is so trusted. It is through his manipulation of language, his carefully placed ‘throw away’ comments, his gentle teasing and taunting, that he leads the general to believe that Desdemona is being unfaithful. Once the seed is sown, a cruelty and violence is unleashed in Othello that has tragic consequences.
Language has the power to beguile us, to inspire us, to set us apart from the animal kingdom. Think of the great speeches of the 20th century, the great speech makers: look at how we as a species can be lifted to greater things through the stirring language of another. It is a great gift.
Yet language can also betray us. It can be used for cruel purposes and can reveal the very worst of our natures. History records time and again those powerful speech makers who have led the world astray.
In the modern age, the inherent danger of language is made all the more potent by two things: the advent of social media and our insatiable thirst for gossip. A recent report speculated that over 90% of modern day communication is centred upon gossip, ‘the casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true.’
Schools, as microcosms of the ‘real world’ (why do we suggest that schools are anything other than real? What a disservice to those who work and exist within them!), are hotbeds of gossip. And banter has become king in the playground, it would seem. ‘Banter’ all too easily slides from being ‘good-humoured fun’ to something more hurtful and cruel. Banter amongst friends = wholly acceptable, apparently; banter from those outside the inner circle of friends = spite. It is a difficult balancing act for anyone to master.
Schools have the job of educating young people about the dangers of language: a few loose words, a comment made without thinking, a repeated phrase, misdirected banter – all can quickly become dynamite. Jacinda Saldanha was a victim of banter, one could argue. The phone call was not intended to harm; it was not intended to upset. But it did. Her death is a chilling lesson in the danger of language.
The truth is we all need to mind our language. It is why we at Cheadle Hulme School will take action when words inflict hurt on others, deliberate or otherwise. It is why we believe we have a part to play when students’ use of social media, even when not on School time, hurts or belittles others.
‘The pen is mightier than the sword’ they say. Indeed it is.
Each one of us has to use language responsibly and with decency. We need to change the nursery rhyme and teach a better lesson to young people: ‘Sticks and stones could break my bones but words will always hurt me.’
After all, that’s closer to the truth isn’t it?
Head, Lucy Pearson