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?



John Cowan said...

My ancient Irish ancestors were big on satire as a regulatory tool; a well-edged satire might not actually transform the recipient into a rat (that's a Welsh fable), but it could certainly make him depressed enough to commit suicide. One Old Irish satire begins with the words gromfa gromfa glamfa glamfa aerfa aerfa, where all six words mean "I will satirize"; the last root is the normal one. For more examples, see my blog post. No doubt which hurt them worse, words or weapons.

David Marjanović said...

I can't think of such a proverb in either direction in German; I know "sticks and stones" only from the Internet.

There is an equivalent to "I'm rubber, you're glue", though – the depressingly prosaic was man sagt, ist man selber "what you say is what you are yourself".

John Cowan said...

OT: I just read your paper on Berber numerals, where you mention that non-productive numeral systems don't go above five. This is definitely wrong: there are body-part counting systems that go into the 20s or 40s but no further, like several systems in Papua New Guinea. And not five minutes ago I discovered the Mangarevan decimal/binary system, which counts as high as 799 and then stops!

Lameen Souag الأمين سواق said...

John: Nice examples - no doubt that words had power in ancient Ireland!

David: Interesting data point. I agree that proverb needs some work - it could at least rhyme or something...

John again: Thanks for the links! Body part systems I was familiar with; Mangarevan, not at all. It may be special pleading, but I think body-part counting systems can legitimately be excluded for my purposes in that paper: in such system you're using an external mnemonic, so the limits of unaided short-term memory are less directly relevant. As for the Mangarevan system, it seems to have coexisted with one that allowed counting up to 10,000,000 (maeaea), so after 799 they would presumably have had the option of switching over...

Anonymous said...

I can't think of a proper match in Finnish, but of the power of words there's at least kipinöistä maat kytevät, sanoista sodat tulevat "sparks make the earth smolder, wars are born from words".