It all started in 2012 and now it’s on a giant billboard on a road I drive during every commute. Pacific Lutheran University, considered by 10% of the Lutherans living in the Seattle/Tacoma area to be the Notre Dame of the West Coast, has a campaign called, “Words Can Hurt.” It began with a small $500 grant from The Pride Foundation, and now apparently has enough money to outbid the government’s “Don’t Text While You Drive, But Please Read These Giant Distracting Billboards While You Drive” campaign for billboard space. Now I can only assume the campaign springs from a desire to make the world a better place through understanding, but I have two major critiques on the message it is actually portraying.
First of all… who didn’t know words can hurt? Is there an over-abundance of college adults who actually took the elementary school rhyme, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never harm me,” as a rule for life? To prevent this in the future, let me just declare now that 95% of the information you learned in elementary school is useless as an adult. Of course words can hurt! That’s why we yell them when we’re angry. We’re trying to hurt you without actually physically hurting you… it’s the lesser of two evils.
And they do understand the word “can,” right? All the campaign is pointing out is, “Hey – in a certain context, with a certain individual, a word has the ability to make that individual feel bad.” Thanks for the giant advertisement to tell me a possibility that should be apparent to anyone educated through high school.
Some of the words chosen by the students baffles me as well. I understand obvious ones, like “ghetto,” “retarded,” and “That’s so gay.” Using those words to describe people is inherently biased against specific groups within humanity. But telling people not to use the words, “angry” or “what are you?” is absurd. It hurts you if someone calls you “angry?” You might be a little thin-skinned. And if you identify as transgender or gender-queer, it’s perfectly understandable that someone unfamiliar with your lifestyle might ask, “What are you?” just to clarify pronoun use. To make a blanket statement across all contexts and situations that those words are “hurtful” is just as damaging to the English language as the misuse of “ghetto,” “retarded,” and “gay.”
The specific word that inspired this response was the poster denouncing the use of the word, “man-hater.” I admit that “man-hater” is a targeted word designed to discredit a feminist’s viewpoint in arguments. It’s much like the word “male-chauvinist” in that regard. Women will often use that phrase to discredit a man’s argument on gender-issue debates. I don’t see a poster for “male-chauvinist” though. And just to let the holier-than-thou campaigners at P.L.U. know… “man-hater” has one synonym: misandrist (someone who hates men). That word is found 29 times in the Oxford English Corpus. “Male-chauvinist” has FOUR synonyms according to dictionary.com: sexist, anti-feminist, misogynist, and misanthrope (which literally means hatred of people, but is only listed as a synonym for misogynist and not misandrist). For comparison, misogynist is found 1,500 times in the Oxford English Corpus.
Now I don’t care when someone calls me a misogynist. Usually he or she is just trying to hurt me out of anger, and usually there’s a good reason for that anger. After all, words can hurt … or so I’ve heard. But perhaps the P.L.U. student body should broaden the individuals involved in the campaign. Maybe then a commonly-used “hurtful” word like male-chauvinist won’t be left off for its less-used counterpart. After all, the goal is to make the world a better place for ALL people, right?