Language is Powerful

The day I kept my mouth shut still rankles. I re-play the scene in my mind and wonder, what should I have done? When should I have spoken up? Clearly I should have done something because it’s still on my mind.

Have you ever been in a situation where a friend inexplicably uses a racial epithet? You’re sitting in a cafe having a coffee and chatting with a few friends. In a totally casual voice one friend says, “Look at the niggers at that table. I could never dress like them. They look fabulous.” It’s a compliment, but you just can’t get past the N-word. What do you do? You could look shocked and say, “Excuse me, what did you say?” or you could go right at it and say, “What kind of language it that!” or you could say nothing. But whatever happens, that word matters and your attitude toward your friend has changed.

Language is powerful and we all know that there are certain words that offend us. Racist and sexist language appalls me and I tend to be on the side of the majority about that.

But what about a word which isn’t universally shunned but which causes the hairs on the back of my neck to bristle? What do I do about that?

Which brings me to the day I kept my mouth shut. I was working with a group of colleagues. We were discussing the topic of gratitude and speaking about the phrase thank you. Soon we were playing with the concept and formally saying “I thank you for…” to each other. Pretty simple wouldn’t you think? Well one wag in the group changed it to ‘I spank you’ and suddenly these otherwise mature adults were giggling and sticking out their well-padded middle-aged bottoms and coyly hitting themselves while saying ‘I spank you’.

And that’s my word. Why do we think that a word, which describes hitting, smacking and swatting young children, is neutral or funny? That’s easy. The word spank is a way to neutralize and sanitize the act it describes. If we were to say we were about to hurt, hit or harm a little three-year old, it sounds just awful. But if we’re going to spank them it has a different feel. Well the word sounds different, but the poor child who is being assaulted by an adult many times larger than him, doesn’t see the difference.

Why didn’t I say something? Why didn’t I ask why these otherwise nice adults think that hurting kids is cute and fun? Well, my defense is that we were working on the concept, had a deadline and my comments would have really affected the process. Hmmm. Why didn’t I say something after the work was finished? Good question and one for which I have no reasonable answer. It was after the event, so it was over. Pretty lousy logic, don’t you think?

Spank is an interesting word. The dictionary is clear, to spank is to hit on the buttocks. So why don’t we say hit. That’s easy. When we use this cute and harmless word we can convince ourselves that we’re not doing any harm.

Problem is that we are. All the research is now clear. Physical punishment of children is not only ineffective as a discipline tool (it is, in fact, not really discipline, but actually punishment) but it is harmful. But this is not a treatise on the spanking of children, despicable and useless as that may be, but on the power of language and our responsibility to speak out.

I hope that if I were to be in a comparable situation tomorrow I would say something. Maybe something like; “Why do we think it’s funny to talk about hitting children?”. Or simply, “I’d prefer it if you could avoid joking about hurting kids.” I would then have to be prepared to answer questions, to justify my stand.

Writing this column, doing it this way is so easy. But maybe, just maybe, some of the folks who were working with me will see themselves and next time they will think about the word spank. Maybe someone reading this will decide that if we’re talking about hitting kids, we use the word hit. Then we’ll decide that hitting kids is not the way to go and will set about to learn better ways to discipline our children.

When that happens the word spank, at least as it applies to children will become obsolete. And that’s the plan.

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