Check it out! I have a little story to tell. It’s about two little girls in the same class who sat at the same table. Each time the teacher gave an exam, one of the girls got a really high score, and the other a really low one. The little girl with the low scores was often teased by one of the other students at her table but never by the little girl with the highest scores. The girl with the highest scores was modest about her achievements and never lorded her over the other students. One day the teacher gave an exam, and the girl who usually scored very low got 100%. The girl who usually scored very high got an 85%. When the tests were returned to the students, the little girl with the 100% threw her paper in the face of not the student who teased her, but the girl with the 85% and said, “In your face, sucker!” The little girl with the 85% began to cry and said, “why do people always do that to me?” The teacher asked the girl who had the !00%, if the other girl had ever teased her, she said no. When the teacher asked her why she did what she did, she shrugged her shoulders.
Now I ask you, how believable do you think this story is? Why would anyone who has experienced the pain of ridicule, turn around and taunt an innocent bystander? Would it have been more believable if the girl who said, “in your face, sucker” was directing it at the bully instead of the bystander when given the chance? It just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. But, it did happen. In fact, it happened in my classroom, and it’s the sort of thing that happens all the time with children, and yes, with adults as well.
No matter how often we are reminded of the “Golden Rule“, somehow, we are all guilty at one time or another of forgetting to follow it. For example, we may not like it when people call us names. We may cry “foul” whenever someone else labels us with words that are derogatory. But, here’s the kicker, the minute we figure out a way to “pay it forward”, we do Just like my little student did. Even when we know how much words can hurt, because we were/are the victims of hurtful words ourselves, we still manage to adopt derogatory language into our vocabulary and excuse it by saying, Oh, that’s just how people talk where I’m from. We don’t mean anything bad by it.
This is a common trap, but here are some clues that can help you to recognize when you are using derogatory language.
You may be using derogatory/divisive language when:
- people tell you that they are offended by it.
- the individuals that you are labeling do not use the term to describe themselves.
- the term is being used inaccurately (look up the definition).
- the true definition reduces the ones being labeled to something less than, or other than human.
- the expression you are using was first adopted by individuals who did not hold the ones being labeled in high regard.
- there are more accurate words already in use to describe the person or group, but you have deliberately switched them out for something less accurate.
- the language strengthens a mindset of “us” and “them”, i.e. is divisive.
Here’s my advise. Stop and reflect a bit whenever you hear yourself using the type of language I have described above, and making excuses for it. Think about how much you sound like the racist, sexist, homophobe, or bully who chose inappropriate language to label you.
Now, name calling is just one example of how we twist the Golden Rule so that it reads, “Do unto others because they did unto you.” Just because you’ve been a target, or part of a targeted group, it doesn’t mean that you have earned a license to shoot blindly from a seat of pain and anger into a crowd that includes innocent bystanders with the hope of hitting someone who hurt you. We all need to find a way to rid ourselves of the pain we have suffered, but there’s a big difference between releasing it and unleashing it.
So, here’s the moral of the story:
If you’re not careful, you can easily become what you so despise.
But, there is a happy ending to this story.
I spoke with my students and made them aware of the impact that their behavior was having on others. I took the little girl who had become both a target and a bully aside, and pointed out to her that she had hurt someone else in the same way that she had been hurt. She quickly apologized, and I got the sense that she had learned an important lesson that day, not just about what she had done, but also about how easy and seamless the transformation from target to bully can be.
Lastly, I charge myself and others with the following:
Become a deliberate practitioner of behavior and language that promotes unity, not division; that encourages, but does not offend.