Sticks and Stones: your words can be powerful so choose them carefully

If you have ever set a Sankalpa or positive affirmation for your Yoga practice then you will know that words can have power. But they can be a force for good or for something far more insidious. By the time most of us reach adulthood, if not long before we all realise that the childhood rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” is at best misleading. What may seem like a harmless joke or “just a bit of banter” doesn’t seem so amusing when you are repeatedly on the receiving end of it.

As a woman I’m sure I’m not alone in having been told to “calm down, it’s only a joke” in the wake of sexist punchline. The not so subtle inference being that the fault lay not with the person who made the joke or comment but with me for having a sense of humour failure.

The debate about what subject matter is fair game when it comes to comedy has raged forever. Many would argue that if you took away all potentially controversial material there would be nothing left, and anyway as long as it’s funny does it matter if a few people get offended along the way?

There’s a famous saying:

“Watch your thoughts, they become your words; watch your words, they become your actions; watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.”

When I was growing up at school people used to use the term “gay” and “spastic" as insults. In fact the former Spastic Society took the decision to rename itself Scope given the wide spread usage of the word in a derogatory sense. What most viewed as a bit of harmless playground banter was actually deterring the people who needed their services the most from accessing them and it was also impacting on their ability to raise funds for those very same services. So perhaps not so harmless after all.

The kind of language and jokes that you might hear in the men’s locker room probably also seems like a harmless bit of banter to those involved, but is it? Would those same men happily repeat what they say in this space in front of their spouses? If the answer is no maybe that’s because on some level they know that it isn’t actually that harmless. We now recognise that it’s not acceptable to use racist language so why is it still ok to use sexist terminology?

It may come as a surprise to many who know me, but I was once the news editor at a lads mag called Zoo. In my defence when I first went for an interview there it hadn’t launched yet so I hadn’t seen a copy and just been told it was an “exciting, newsy, weekly for men.” That description frankly stretched the truth to breaking point. The men I worked with were all nice guys, the kind you would have no qualms about taking home to meet your mum. But the kind of banter that existed in that office would give you chin carpet burn as your jaw hit the floor in disbelief. I dare say those who took part in it would probably not want to be reminded of it and certainly wouldn’t dream of cracking jokes like that in front of their girlfriends or wives even then. But in that environment it was deemed not just OK but positively encouraged. One memory that really stands out is when we held a readers competition for the best joke and a couple of the “best”ones were read out with glee in the office:

“Why do women wear make-up and perfume?

Because they’re ugly and smell.”

Boom, boom.

There were worse examples but I don’t want to put you off your breakfast/lunch/dinner.

I can clearly remember making eye contact with one of my female colleagues at the time and sharing a look of total disbelief. We were both absolutely furious. Did we say anything? No because we knew if we had we would have been accused of not having a sense of humour or being told to “calm down, it’s only a joke” and feeling like we didn’t fit in. Do I wish I had spoken up at Zoo? Of course. This all happened nearly 20 years ago and I just felt like I couldn’t say anything, that even if I had it would have achieved nothing other than to have me labelled some sort of rampant trouble making feminist.

But while I doubt there are many mixed work places where that sort of banter would be deemed acceptable now, I know that even the “nice” guys still make jokes among themselves that prevent us from burying unhelpful and damaging gender stereotypes for good.

A more recent example of sexist humour that I heard:

“Is International Women’s Day over yet? I need my dinner.”

Ok it’s not as offensive as my Zoo example but imagine making a similar attempt at humour that made black or Asian people the butt of the joke. Unless you’re a rampant, unapologetic racist you just wouldn’t.

This is why I sat my 13 year old son down this week and tried to explain to him why it’s really not cool to make disparaging comments about girls or women. That it’s also seriously uncool when boys share pictures of girls without their consent. That those girls are someone’s daughters or sisters. I know from my own experience how important it is to feel like you’re one of the gang, that you fit in and that’s why it’s so hard to speak up rather than go along with a joke that you know is offensive. Am I confident that he would call them out if one of his class mates cracked a sexist joke or made offensive comments about a passing girl? I really don’t know. But I will keep trying to raise him to have real respect for women and girls and to know that when you make jokes about a group that faces daily harassment, violence and inequality the only people who are really laughing are the perpetrators.


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