Headmaster’s Thoughts – November 2010

When I was very young, we used to say when insulted, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” You don’t hear that so much anymore because we have learned how powerful words are and their ability to inflict pain. Verbal bullies, who use the Internet to send messages of hate, well know what they are doing. They intentionally cause distress and, frequently, mock that distress by sharing the insult with “friends” on Facebook or some other social networking site. They hurl insults in a distant way rather than face to face. In the old days you saw your enemy on the battlefield literally nose to nose. Today, you can sit in Missouri and kill people in Pakistan. So it is with social networks and verbal cruelty. No wonder the invective has ratcheted up.


Humpty Dumpty, in my favorite quote from my favorite book, said: “When I choose a word… it means just what I choose it to mean.” Alice did not buy this and neither, unfortunately, can we. If you call someone a pervert or a slut, those words have power and cannot just be withdrawn. They can leave marks like physical attacks.


But words can change in their meaning. And sometimes they simultaneously mean different things to different people. That does not mean Humpty was right–“marmalade” does not mean “tomorrow”–but his statement does reflect the emotional power of words.


I am still surprised that groups have arrogated to themselves certain words. They have grabbed them. My favorite example is “gay.” I used to think that meant “cheerful” without any reference to sexual orientation. Now it means something entirely different although, for the record, I have known both cheerful and sad homosexuals and heterosexuals. Maybe in this case, “marmalade” is becoming close to “tomorrow.”


Similarly, “pro-life”: does that mean that those who think a woman has a right to make a choice are anti-life? No one on either side is anti-life! And “natural birth”! Who chose that one? Are not all births a natural process (no matter if forceps or other surgical instruments are used)? And why, too often in education, does “diversity” only refer to race? “Race” refers to race, but diversity refers to, well, diversity. Thus at York we have a pianist who is a prodigy, a diver who is in the top ten in the country in his age bracket, children of poverty and wealth, children whose family structure is different from the norm, children who….you get the picture. Diversity is diversity.


I dislike some words. I dislike the word “hate.” I dislike it intensely, but I am not going to say I hate the word. There is a word for the kind of statement I just made but, ironically, I have forgotten it. I dislike the word “toleration.” The “Test Act” of 1871 in England (known as the “Toleration Act”) allowed non-practicing Christians into the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. It is a good thing that I applied after that Act. There is nothing equal in toleration. It is a one-sided use of arrogance posing as kindness. When a country club tolerates Catholics, it means it allows them in but specifically implies they are not equal. If they were, the “toleration” would be redundant. I remember an argument I had with a student from a university in the Southern US, when we were both at Oxford, who proudly told me that his school allowed inter-racial dating. I told him no such thing exists: humans date humans and we are all members of the human race. I was being disingenuous: I well knew what he meant and was trapping him into admitting his prejudices. I hope my words had more power than his words.


Jonathan Miller said on stage (in Beyond the Fringe) that he was not a “Jew,” but merely “Jewish.” A funny line, but there was thought behind his humor. If we could get away from labels that differentiate us into almost tribal groupings and move towards the recognition that we are all humans (I obviously like that word) with common insecurities, then maybe we would have less suicides, less angst, and more fun.


So words have far greater power than most of us acknowledge, and they cannot just be “taken back” once said. Sticks and stones won’t break my bones, but they surely can mess with my mind.



Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster

E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org



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