“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.”
Many of us probably heard some version of this playground chant as children. Meant to encourage us to let name-calling roll off our backs, the rhyme reinforces the idea that only physical violence hurts us.
This is not only patently false, it also gives a free pass to those who revel in using words to hurt others. They get a double-bonus: they can bully people verbally, then tell them they shouldn’t be hurt since it was “only words.”
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (also known as AOC) stepped up to the microphone in Congress last week to call out this behavior. Representative Ted Yoho accosted Rep. Ocasio-Cortez on the steps of the Capitol, seemingly deciding this was the appropriate time and place to let her know how he felt about her recent remarks about the connection between poverty and crime. He called her “disgusting,” and “out of her mind,” then when she said his remarks were rude, he walked away, adding the coda, “Fucking bitch.”
Those last two words are getting most of the attention, but I’m interested in the whole exchange. The terms “disgusting” and “out of your mind” serve to dehumanize AOC, to place her, her opinions, and her work lower than that of Yoho’s. Once he has done that, it’s a short step to calling her a fucking bitch, not a term one reserves for esteemed colleagues across the aisle. According to AOC, this was the first time the two Congresspeople ever spoke to each other.
To state the obvious, words hurt. They demean, they belittle, and in this case, they send the signal that women (perhaps especially a young woman of color), should stay out of the men’s world of politics. These words are wielded as a weapon.
Make no mistake. Verbal abuse is violence, and words shape how we see and understand other people.