Sticks and stones

“Sure you know what I mean…”

The call to complicity is one we hear all the time. It’s the stock response from anyone called out on discrimination, and it’s all too easy to just nod along and mumble “yeah, I do”.

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is a comforting conceit for a kid being taunted at school, but like a lot of things we tell kids, it’s fantasy.

The next time someone asks you to be complicit in their racism or their homophobia by saying “well you know what I mean”, tell them you don’t. Ask why.

Words do hurt. This week is LGBT awareness week, centering around IDAHO day. A lot of acronyms, but the basic gist is that tolerance and equality are fundamentally good things. (IDAHO stands for International Day against Homophobia).

The gay community in Ireland has come a long, long way, in a very short space of time. From being criminalised for their very thoughts, to – for some – being openly able to celebrate the community’s difference and general fabulousness, is an incredible leap to make.

The recent case of a South African teenager who died after being sent by his parents to ‘recovery camp’, which would ‘cure’ him of being gay, is a very stark reminder that sometimes words do hurt. His parents found the word ‘gay’ so powerful and so hateful that they were willing to let him die rather than be labelled with it.

Imagine a word so powerful it made you want to kill your own child?

From schoolyard name calling to adults abusing positions of power and speaking in generalities or, sometimes, pointedly at particular groups because they are ‘different’, or ‘other’, we can’t underestimate the power of words.

Words are what led to the worst ethnic massacre of modern times. An influential radio station in Rwanda, over a period of years, gradually convinced one ethnic group that the other ethnic group were after their money, their land and their jobs.

By the end of the few dark, bitter years Radio Milles Collines was in existence it was calling that group “cockroaches” and saying it deserved to die. Almost a million Tutsi men, women and children were hacked to death by their furious, bitter neighbours, who believed the propaganda, and millions more continue to suffer as a direct result in a proxy war in the Congo.

Words of blame for economic hardship following World War 1 in Germany are what led to six million Jews, gypsies, gay people and disabled people being executed in concentration camps by people whose best answer was “well I was just following orders”.

“I was just following orders” only just beats “well, you know what I mean” as a half-hearted defence of something somebody knows is wrong.

Neither is a valid argument.

The next time someone says “well, you know what I mean”, when you query something they have said, don’t answer the call to complicity.


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