Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Sticks and stones and value inversion

In the Western world over the past few years, freedom of speech seems to be becoming a matter not just of human rights but of cultural identity. While many threats to this principle are routinely ignored, some are singled out for a great deal of attention. In particular, legions of columnists stand firm against the efforts of ungrateful foreigners and degenerate youths – suicide bombers and special snowflakes – to undermine our liberal traditions. Such whiners, apparently, have forgotten one of the first proverbs an Anglo child learns:
Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.
I am not aware of any close equivalent of this saying among the other cultures I know best; in that sense, it can indeed be seen as reflecting a distinctive characteristic of Anglo culture, if not necessarily Western culture. However, this saying is also much more recent than you might expect; its first appearance in print seems to be in mid-19th century America. This timing coincides well with the rise of classical liberalism, and its form seems to be a deliberate inversion of earlier proverbs, reversing the original meaning. Medieval Englishmen used to say precisely the opposite:
Malicious tongues, though they have no bones,
Are sharper than swords, sturdier than stones. (Skelton, Against Venemous Tongues, ed. Dyce, i. 134)
Tongue breaketh bone, all if the tongue himself have none. (Wyclif, Works, ed. Arnold, ii. 44)
Rhyming proverbs to the same effect can be found all over northern Africa, in Algerian Arabic (of Oran):
əḷḷahumma ḍəṛba bdəmmha wala kəlma bsəmmha.
اللهم ضربة بدمها ولا كلمة بسمها.
O God, better a blow drawing blood than a word dripping poison.
or Kabyle Berber:
Ljerḥ yeqqaz iḥellu, yir awal yeqqaz irennu.
A wound digs deep and heals, a bad word digs deep and keeps digging.
or even Zarma (Songhay), down in Niger:
Yaaji me ga daray, amma sanni futo me si daray.
A lance’s edge goes away, but a bad word’s edge doesn’t go away.
Both contrasting sets of proverbs are, of course, gross exaggerations, false if taken literally. Words certainly can hurt, and wounds can certainly hurt worse than words; no one in any culture is likely to deny either fact. What they represent in each case is a cultural consensus – robust, but subject to change – on how seriously to take the hurt that words can cause, and by implication on how sharp a response is justified.

The most compelling by far of the classical liberal arguments for freedom of speech is that it deepens our understanding of the truth. An opinion left unchallenged starts to seem like intuitive common sense; it becomes something people adhere to out of habit rather than out of conviction. Freedom of speech, ironically, is a case in point. Ideally, we are exposed to the arguments for its value at some point, in university if not in high school. But long before that, we’ve already had a weak version of it inculcated by elements of everyday life, like “Sticks and stones...” Such an early exposure makes it seem like universal common sense, like something that should be instinctively obvious to everyone. It’s not; even Englishmen assumed the opposite not too long ago. If you want everyone to believe it, you have to be able to make a good argument for it – and to do that effectively, you need to understand something of where they’re coming from.

How does this compare with cultures you've lived? Are you familiar with any other proverbs on the relative harmfulness of words and weapons?