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“…can break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” So goes the old playground rejoinder when someone hurls a hateful epithet, a mean name, or any other of the verbal childhood cruelties we're capable of inflicting on one another. It’s the perfect comeback to any playground taunt.
The only problem is that it’s not true. Sure, hateful words do not puncture the skin or break bone, but they do wound us. Especially when the words we use are tied to a legacy of intimidation, abuse, and oppression. When those words have the effect of making people feel “othered,” or feel that they do not truly belong to their community, then, absolutely, they hurt.
The right to exercise freedom of speech on an increasingly diverse campus cannot be affirmed without affirming the truth that words do, in fact, cause harm. Free speech is one of those liberties central to our democratic society and one which no serious defender of our social values would attempt to curtail. In a free society, people have the right to say whatever they want to. But should they?
Why we do a thing often matters as much as what we do. At the Kay Spiritual Life Center, we spend a lot of time thinking about the why of things—we are, as our mission states, a place for meaning and purpose, two of the great endeavors associated with asking “Why?” But those considerations cannot be divorced from a third endeavor, identified in that same mission: community.
It is easy in the libertarian context of free speech to forget the communitarian values that bind us together. And so, it becomes important to remember that are times that when because of the harm a word can do to a member of our community it ought not be said, regardless of whether we have the right to. This, after all, is what is meant by love of neighbor—love is not a warm, fuzzy feeling we have toward one another, it's a way of living in right relationship.
Harmful words may not affect us in the same way that sticks and stones do (although elevated stress and emotional trauma is never good for the body), but they certainly do undermine the well-being of others. And in undermining the well-being of our neighbors, whom we are called to love, they undermine the well-being of the community, and in so doing can perpetuate a harm greater than sticks and stones ever could.
Rev. Mark A. Schaefer