You Don’t Kill Hateful Words’ Powers By Ignoring Them

The problems discussed in the middle section of this post’s essay are epitomized in various ways by this video:

The Stoics, with some wisdom that is in need of some qualification, advise us to always be mindful about the difference between what we can control and what we cannot. Stoics typically argue that we are free only insofar as we are dealing with things that are in our power and we will only be miserable if we stake our happiness to our ability to control what is not in our power. Epictetus puts the point like this:

Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions–in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; the things that are not up to us are weak, enslaved, hindered, not our own. So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will blame both gods and men.

So on this thinking we can only control our own actions and our own attitudes, and not what happens to us, what others do, or what others’ natures are like, etc. We can only maintain our own virtue and rationally accept the course of a rational nature. It is irrational to wish things to be other than they are and suffer over what we have no control over. It is for this reason that we should, without pain, accept the transience of those we love, that they will die. It is for this reason that we accept that there will be bad people with flawed characters and all manner of inconveniences throughout life. Vicious people are making intellectual mistakes and so not to be judged harshly. We should also refrain from judging others since we can never presume to understand why they have misjudged the good as they have.

While it requires some serious qualifications or amendments here and there, much of this is very good advice. But one seriously problematic interpretation of this advice is the idea that being offended is all in one’s own mind, such that if you do not take the attitude that you have been harmed you have not been harmed. Many a target of vicious insults and other forms of verbal assault and denigration are told that if only they would change their frame of mind such that verbal attacks did not emotionally damage them, then there would essentially be no wrong done. This advice is even given in cases where the insults and verbal assaults take the forms of slurs or are in comparable other ways gendered, racially antagonistic, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, ableist, classist, atheophobic, etc., and so actually target not only the directly verbally abused person but others who share a class with them. And sometimes this advice is hostile, contemptuous, threatening, and filled with accusations that if the target does not just let these insults and/or slurs go that he or she is (apparently culpably) choosing to be a victim.

This is galling for many reasons. Often these people counseling others not to be “be victims” are ostensibly indignant that anyone would ever try to stop others from using the kinds of language they use or saying the kinds of things they say, no matter how hateful. Under the guise of free speech absolutism they act appalled that anyone would tell anyone else what words or phrases they can or cannot use. That is supposedly “silencing” and it is done by people who supposedly want to be “victims”. So on their account, standing up for yourself and saying you will not accept insults and verbal assault is laying down and playing helpless out of a desire to feel like you were victimized and could do nothing about it. And supposedly it takes a choice to be insulted in order for words to be insulting even though the very words that are used have very standard definitions as insult words or normal linguistic functions that are well understood to be insulting when used in particular ways.

Astoundingly these people enjoining stoicism to the targets of words like “cunt” or “bitch” or “fag” or “stupid”, etc. are blaming the words’ insulting powers not on those who are vigorously employing the words with full intentions to insult, demean, marginalize, demonize, silence, etc. but they are blaming the occurrences of insults on the words’ targets for taking the words as their definitions and normal usage naturally indicate they should be taken. It’s supposedly not the fault of the people knowingly using insulting terms, it’s the fault of those saying “stop insulting me and trying to verbally assault a whole class of people like me in the same gesture”. This is like blaming someone who is punched for falling down and making an act of violence happen. Had only they had not been physically affected there would have been no violent effect!

These often vociferous defenders of the right to verbal abuse try to convince targets of slurs, insults, and verbal bullying that there is just no stopping people from verbally abusing them and complaining will only encourage them so it is morally incumbent on them to be quiet and ignore it or they will get what they deserve when their complaining is met with further retaliatory verbal abuse.

Unbelievably, for all their adamant explicit insistence on everyone’s freedom to say whatever one wants, they don’t think that complaining about insults is the sort of free speech that should never be criticized. One is allowed to engage in any kind of silencing, bullying speech, unless that silencing speech takes the form of “don’t bully people”. Then suddenly their hypocritical free speech absolutism reaches its limits and they tell others what kinds of speech not to engage in.

They don’t think that complaining is just people’s prerogatives. They don’t take their own advice and stop complaining about the complainers on the theory that complaining about their complaining is only going to encourage the complainers to do some more complaining. No, these selective defenders of everyone’s rights to say whatever they want draw the line at complaining about bullying. You can say whatever you want. But complain about the abusive things others say? Whoah, whoah, whoah, now you’ve crossed the line. And there’s no point in complaining about what others say, people just can’t be stopped. Except if you’re complaining about other people complaining because that’s a moral necessity. Those people need to learn to shut up, and totally can be taught to do so so we’re just going to keep on telling them to shut up.

Their attitude that abusive verbal behavior should never be complained about because it can never be stopped is an astounding sort of immoral reactionary conservatism that denies the active role that people play in creating, perpetuating, and enforcing social and moral norms. No matter how “progressive”, “liberal” or “libertarian” their ideological beliefs, anyone who tells you to stop complaining about something immoral or harmful or unjust because that’s “just how things are”, that person is really a conservative in the worst and most consequential of ways. They are protecting implicit norms that make it socially acceptable (whether in the culture at large or in subcultures) to denigrate certain despised classes by pretending that verbal bullies are just unstoppable forces of nature that cannot be tampered with. They implicitly deny verbal abusers’ moral responsibilities and place great moral responsibility on the verbally abused to never complain lest anyone ever be made to feel like a word is off limits to be spoken or lest the complainers ever “let” themselves be victims (a much more heinous crime than verbal assault). Words are sacrosanct, even when they are used hatefully. Except they are not sacrosanct when they’re used to complain about other people’s hateful uses of words, naturally. And those complaining are assured moral and social norms can never change. So they should just stoically learn to deal or they want to be a victim and it’s their fault they feel abused.

But sometimes a more sincere argument emerges. Sometimes members of marginalized groups and survivors of abuse themselves vociferously argue against anyone taking offense, on similarly stoic sounding grounds. Having themselves learned through great struggle to affirm themselves despite others’ hatreds and to endure without succor or mercy from their oppressors, they define their dignity by their ability to be impervious to the slings of others and they loathe the part of them that was once vulnerable and which once suffered at the hands of others.

And they get angry, and sometimes even abusive themselves, towards other survivors of abuse or subjects of marginalization for exhibiting, to their minds, the very weaknesses they despised and have lived vigorously trying to extirpate from themselves. They define themselves by their victory over victimhood. When they see others saying they are offended or upset, they see them as letting themselves be wounded. Having, to their minds, adamantly not let themselves be so reduced to victims controllable by others, they have contempt. They feel their own superiority in not being like those others who are like them but who, unlike them, apparently give their mutual tormentors the satisfaction of seeing they got to them.

So the counsel these types of survivors of abuse or marginalization give is that if only the targets of slurs and verbal bullying would stop taking offense the words would lose their power altogether. Words are just combinations of sounds (aurally) or shapes (in writing). Apart from conventions no arbitrary combinations of sounds or shapes has any intrinsically harmful meaning. The argument goes that only if people stop getting offended and reacting woundedly, those who verbally bully would lose this weapon to hurt those they seek to marginalize and abuse and oppress. If it never phases the targets a word loses its power and they, the thinking goes, lose their power over the minds of those they seek to victimize. By not “letting themselves” be victims, by not letting words have the power to hurt them, they suck away their oppressors’ power.

The problem with this idea is that not taking offense at a word does not make it meaningless. It still holds a vicious, Othering meaning in the mouths of those who use it in describing those they seek to marginalize. Neither the hatred, the demonization, the contempt, nor the dismissiveness is any less in the intention. And no less do the words signal to susceptible others that the words’ targets are people to be disparaged, mistreated, and marginalized. And when people don’t fight back against this language, the aggressors are not discouraged in these efforts of theirs to throw their weight around and silence. If those who they are trying to silence just keep letting it roll off their backs, they don’t challenge the dominance play that’s at work in the oppressors’ insistence on using threatening, “place-putting”. Or, when those in a privileged class are not consciously malicious but merely have a passive aggression they never face up to fully (even to themselves) or they are more ignorantly negligent, they still nonetheless still replicate in themselves and pass on to others oppressive patterns of thinking, feeling, judging, and treating others that is inevitably going to have consequences in countless small ways and occasional huge ones.

Hateful language and abusive verbal treatment is both a symptom and a powerful perpetuator of deeper rotten attitudes that will inevitably have consequences in behaviors. While those on the receiving end of it should steel themselves emotionally and intellectually as best they can so that it has little damaging effects on their own sense of self as possible, they should push back vigorously against it. Such pushback is an integral part of an overall demand for their dignity to be recognized morally, legally, politically, behaviorally, and attitudinally.  All of this starts with thought and speech. Those who benefit in crass ways from their oppression understand this and use abusive language as a tool both to keep oppressive attitudes in place and to keep their targets in their subordinate place. Their vociferous arguments in favor of slurs and other abusive expressions are dominance plays implicitly meant to silence, intimidate, and keep those they want subordinate in place.

Your Thoughts?

Related posts:
In Defense of Taking Offense
From Normal to Normative, Human Minds’ Conformist Conservative Prejudice
I’m not against “dirty words”. I’m against degrading words that have malicious intent and functions built into them
Stop Calling People Stupid
No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism
Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral
Vulnerability, Victim-Blaming, and the Just World Fallacy
No, You Can’t Call People Sluts
Why Misogynisic Language Matters
My Philosophy on What Free Speech and Freethinking Really Entail
The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge

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Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • smrnda

    I’ve often thought that, in the end, stoicism is a pretty sadistic philosophy, since (simplified version) it turns any problem into an attitude problem.

    Another problem is that sometimes, we can take control of external factors. Prejudice used to be much stronger, and many people probably thought it was something to be stoically accepted, but history has shown us that things can change when enough people demand that they change.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      I think that’s an oversimplified interpretation, probably inspired by the common English use of the term. Although you have to take into account the fact that the classical stoics were largely talking to a privileged audience, and advised everything from fully investing yourself into your social role to semi-monasticism.

      So I see two stoic arguments to make here. First, what are my responsibilities as a teacher, student, or employee? Failing to act on my responsibilities is my problem. Whether the school, conference, employer, etc., meets their responsibilities doesn’t change my moral nature. I’m obligated to report a crime, I can’t take credit or blame if someone else bungles the investigation or prosecution.

      The second argument is that Epictetus advises stoics to avoid potentially harmful situations. Granted, since I think he’s working from a position of privilege, the environments he cites are brothels, bars, and sporting events. If I believe that a relationship is abusive, I have no obligation to put up with it.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Part of Epictetus’s entire appeal is that he was born a slave though.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      True, I might be confusing Epictetus with Seneca, who I’ve be reading this evening. Seneca explicitly argues that stoics are not passive, and have active duties to the state, towards one’s peers, and to fight tyranny.

      “but in any case we ought to move and not to become frozen still by fear: nay, he is the best man who, though peril menaces him on every side and arms and chains beset his path, nevertheless neither impairs nor conceals his virtue: for to keep oneself safe does not mean to bury oneself.”

      In Seneca’s view, the stoic is an ideal citizen because:

      1) he understands his limitations and can serve in a role appropriate to those limitations

      2) acts according to duty, regardless of whether that duty makes him popular or infamous.

      The stoic should act, but the morality of that act doesn’t depend on whether the stoic is considered a hero or traitor in his or her time.

  • Shira Coffee

    I disagree with smrnda about stoicism, but here’s the thing. Cutting irrational attachments is a gradual, effortful process. You cannot expect every random person to “not be hurt” by hatred anymore than you can expect them to immediately play a concerto on an instrument they have never learned to play.

    I would also like to point out that people are shamed by being told, “You didn’t stand up for yourself (so this is all your fault)!” That is just as big a problem as shaming them for being hurt. Standing up to bullies is also not a panacaea. Often, doing so will cause bullies to escalate, perhaps even to physical violence, and there’s no reliable way to tell when that is going to happen. Bullies are tricky that way.

    Going back to stoic (and Buddhist, btw) ideas, the fact that we DO only control our own thinking, words and actions means that we have to put serious effort into developing good judgment, good verbal skills and virtuous behavior. I don’t know about stoicism — I keep meaning to read Marcus Aurelius… — but Buddhism insists that good thinking requires the cultivation of healthy emotional states such as goodwill, compassion, appreciation and peaceful mind. Proper speech and proper action require us to act in accordance with those healthy emotions.

    So that means we have an obligation to defend people — including ourselves — against bullies whenever, in our best judgment, we can make any difference, however small. And then we are required to examine the consequences of our actions and thus improve our judgment.

    This is a tough way to address the problem of bullying. But I do not know any other method that can be applied in every situation.

  • Laurent Weppe

    Gorillas beat their chests, monkeys throw their feces, dogs shows their teeth, Bears stand on their hind legs, Humans throw insults.

    I’ve often said it: slurs and insults are first and foremost tools to assert dominance: they are the Homo Sapiens’ version of the pan-mamalian warning; “I’m this close to bite you to death if you don’t leave/let me have the best part of this dead pray/refrain from copulating with a member of our species within My territory, etc, etc, etc…”.

    The biggest problem is that while modern society frown on any kind of personal retribution, stoic reaction to insults is oft interpreted by the assaulting party as a sign of submission, because such interpretation is harwired in their mamalian brains, and submission invites further abuse: this is why adopting a “Zen attitude” toward micro-agressions, online bullying, or organized smear campains is counter-productive: lack of reaction only excite the would-be tyrant who see only meekness in it.

    It then comes to the Great Dilemna: how much freedom can we grant to the ennemies of freedom: we know that if we let them run unchecked, they’ll work tirelessly to establish themselves as the petty tyrants of their corner of the world, whether the corner is as small as a single household or as big as a whole continent.Yet reducing their liberty also creates the risk of society to become the mirror image of what it seeks to defeat: damned if people don’t, but they’re far from being out of the fire if they do.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      I mildly disagree here. In some cases, the person in question is looking for a fight. In spaces where the hosts do moderate comments, “flag and move on” is a reasonable stance to take.

      The article is making me reconsider my involvement in discussions that are not strongly moderated for both civility and topic. If my contribution is going to be used merely as a stub to go off-topic on pre-scripted talking points, then is it really ethical for me to make it? I’ve been considering whether to submit a link to the Silver/Coleman research to another forum, and my reluctance has to do with the possibility the comments thread will be appropriated for rote, performative debate. With the threaded structure of many online discussions, adding a response gives the bully an additional thread to bully.

      A key problem I see with Internet discourse is the difficulty in doing silent witness and protest. Which has been an important way to protest bad ideas, without giving them a dialogue.

      I think depriving a bully of eyes and responses is valid as both a self-defense strategy, and a way to weed out badly moderated sites that don’t deserve our clicks. That’s primarily an argument about internet discourse where vote with your feet (or mouse wheel) is a more viable strategy than it is for schools and workplaces.

    • Laurent Weppe

      To “flag and move on” is already tp take a pro-active stance: it is in essence similar to calling the security in order to get rid of a heckler: sure, you’re not making a show of yourself by personally telling the heckler to get out before he gets hurt, but all other things being equal, you are in fact responding to bullyish behavior by a displayed of brute force.

    • Edward Gemmer

      Totally disagree. A zen like attitude incites excitement because it is a signal that the dominance is not accepted, therefore the person wanting to dominate must try harder. Passiveness shows that the target doesn’t care about the person trying to display dominance, which incited them to try harder. Apologies, soothing, etc. trigger a calming reaction from the bullying party, which is why people try so hard to get apologies.

  • Steersman

    Just out of curiosity and as a point of reference, how’s the search for signatories to your “civility pledge” progressing?

    While I’m certainly sympathetic to your goal, I also think you are being almost criminally naïve or disingenuous. It might be nice if we were all able to hold hands and sing Kum Ba Yah, and it might be a reasonable goal, although that seems more utopian than not. However, as with the process of nuclear disarmament, and as you probably know from a study of game theory such as the iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma, the nature of the beast tends to make unilateral steps toward that goal more problematic and fraught with danger than not. And in the case of insults, that seems to suggest that the optimal solution is, as with nuclear disarmament, something along the line of “mutual assured destruction”. That is, no first-use but devasting retaliation if someone else first uses. As Steven Pinker put it in his The Blank Slate:

    A readiness to inflict a preemptive strike is a double-edged sword, because it makes one an inviting target for a premptive strike. So people have invented, or perhaps evolved, an alternative defense: the advertised deterence policy known as lex talionis, the law of retaliation, familiar from the biblical injunction, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”. If you can credibly say to potential adversaries, “We won’t attack first, but if we are attacked, we will survive and strike back”, you remove Hobbes’ first two incentives for quarrel, gain and mistrust”. [pgs 324-325]

    As for your “splash-damage” argument, I wonder if you’ve ever given any thought to what its mechanism is. Personally, I think it is a question of empathy and a misplaced identification with the attribute that is the supposed target in many insults – whether sexist, racist, or ableist. And I also wonder whether you’ve given any thought to the possibility that those who rely on it do so as a way of taking off the table those insults that would most hurt them while permitting those that would most hurt others. Which is, if I’m not mistaken, sort of the modus operandi of bullies.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      As you know, I’m against all insults, not just slurs.

    • Steersman

      And many are against war. But putting one’s head in the sand doesn’t nullify the fact that sometimes there is a necessity for it.

      Likewise with insults.

  • John Kruger

    The abuse of stoicism is an easy rationalization trap for privileged people to fall into. When one asks the question “Why are others so affected by slurs that do not affect me at all?” , the temptation is to come to the conclusion that your overall attitude and mental health is just better than the other people who get so offended all the time.

    The glaring oversight that privilege causes is that slurs against a privileged group do not have nearly the same life implications as they do on an underclass. My being called a “breeder” or “cracker” is never accompanied by the physical danger or social implications that slurs against homosexuals or different races encounter. Overlooking this and moving on to victim blaming is one of the most prevalent and oppressive ideologies I have encountered.

  • billwald

    What might be the dividing word between “sticks and stones” words and “fighting words?”

  • chatty052

    Words can hurt and as your article eloquently states, that it is our attitude and how we use words that can really damage others. Some words are just crude and rude. Oftentimes others use crude or rude words to make a point or maybe they just do not have the self-control that those who do not use crude words have.

    Anyway, I cannot go into the whole story about what happened to me about two years ago; but had I not received a phone call from someone who attends my church and they left their phone on to let me hear that a highly educated man from Massachusetts was stating to others around him that he was told that I had been a “whore”!?!? This is a grown man, probably in his 60′s and I will tell you now that I have never lived in the streets or even know how to be a street walker. I am white and not black; but this man used to give me rides back and forth to church on Sundays until his wife decided to start going to church with him. I rode with both of them for awhile and gave them gifts/monies to show my appreciation; but instead I find out that this teacher at our local college was telling church clergy that he was told I was a “whore”. I did my best to get this taken care of; but the female head clergy never, ever called me or wrote me to ask me to come in to talk. I have been a christian for years and am legally disabled; but I am not ignorant, rude or stupid. It hurts that someone would spread such hurtful words and they are suppose to be highly educated.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      I am white and not black

      I am confused as to the relevance of this.

  • chatty052

    I was glad that I have had the opportunity to read your article posting! Whow, such understanding and straight to the point, right on! Without going into any lengthy details, I have been someone’s target off and on for some time because they believe I called Family Service on them several years ago. (Their little girl had called me saying she wanted to come to my home because her mother was drunk.) Anyway, this same individual found out where I go to church and somehow started the mess all over again. It is hard when someone tries to discredit a person by oppressive behaviors. Mostly, I have done my best to rise above it; but what hurts worse is when a Social Worker I know from church, after her husband had been giving me rides back and forth to church for a year; decides to pass on a story she either made up or someone told her that is totally false. All I can say is if people who go to church are allowed to put disabled, female veterans down, then the world is lost on it’s head as far as I am concerned. When trying to get things resolved, the head of the church, couldn’t even ask me to come in to talk. More than once they had one or two church members try to embarrass me in front of my grandchildren. I am a law-abiding citizen, a loving mother to 4 beautiful adult children, who all have a college education; plus I love all 5 of my grandchildren.

    I can only pray that one day prejudice, etc. will be diminished; but until it is, prayer is the best solution. These same “adults” in church who put down me, would not want someone calling their mother a “whore” or someone doing drugs, when they have never done such things. My medical history proves all of them wrong; but what good is have good records to prove your innocence when someone is doing their best to ruin you as a female? My husband was a Vietnam Veteran and passed away 10 years ago. He was part Afro-American and I am white.

    No matter what is happening to people, more of us need to reach out to those who, despite having decent lives, are being hurt by those who want to feel superior. I often wonder if Jesus would approve? Does God really care about those of us who struggle with oppression? I hope so because I believe in the Holy Trinity and one day these shootings of young black men, Hispanics, etc. will diminish.

    Wishing everyone a terrific weekend!