[Jesus] recognized with authentic realism that anyone who permits another to determine the quality of his inner life gives into the hands of the other the key to his destiny. If a man knows precisely what he can do to you or what epithet he can hurl against you in order to make you lose your temper, your equilibrium, then he can always keep you under subjection.
—Jesus and the Disinherited, Howard Thurman
Cruel words can trigger hurt feelings and anger. Individuals who speak those words need to be held accountable and we need to reduce their frequency. But a compassionate response avoids blaming only the speaker. Listeners share responsibility for their reactions, and social conditioning and other factors contribute as well.
The Dalai Lama said:
You have to think: Why did this happen? This person is not your enemy from birth…. You see that this person’s actions are due to their own destructive emotions. You can develop a sense of concern, compassion, even feel sorry for their pain and suffering.
Words do not directly cause harm like a hammer causes pain when it hits my thumb. Cause and effect is a linear dynamic; emotions are immersed in a holistic system. Words contribute to hurt feelings, but how I process what others say is another factor. I am partly responsible for how I respond. I can learn how to react differently.
So I no longer tell people, “You hurt me.” That phrase shifts all responsibility onto the speaker.
It can be more constructive to say, “When you said X, I felt Y.” In that case, the focus is on a single action. That makes it easier to acknowledge a mistake and resolve not to repeat it, which can help heal the relationship.
On the other hand, “You hurt me” focuses on the other. As such, it can be seen as a personal attack, a challenge to who you are at your core. That can make the exchange more heated and lead to a reciprocal, escalating blame game with each party accusing the other, which often degenerates into ad hominem name-calling.
One result is personal fragility. People become less likely to speak honestly, because they’re afraid they will cause harm or be accused of causing harm. That fear gives power to people who are prone to charge, “You hurt me.” Those accusers can then try to manipulate the speaker with guilt trips.
“You hurt me” is like charging a felony rather than an infraction. When “defendants” plead “not guilty” to that felony, “prosecutors” often punish, shun, or excommunicate them. As a result, former allies often splinter over disagreements about tactics.
Faced with that harshly judgmental dynamic, many potential allies withdraw from social engagement and operate in a safer environment with a small circle of friends, which reinforces the splintering.
America’s highly individualistic culture exaggerates the responsibility of individuals. But the primary problem is the System, which includes our institutions, our culture, and ourselves as individuals. A kind response to mean words takes into account that reality.
I wish I were not so easily offended. I wish others were not so easily offended. I wish that like-minded people did not divide so easily into factions. After all, we need community, not fragmentation.
Blaming individuals diverts energy away from organizing to change institutions and policies. More compassion and less blaming could help nurture a broad-based movement to transform the United States into a supportive community that would enable you, me, and everyone to be all we can be.
Wade Hudsonhas been an activist, organizer, and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area since 1962. He publishes WadesWire.org.
This is an important and useful discussion of a hot-button issue.
As much as I wish people were more careful and considerate in their speech, I more importantly wish that people were more easygoing and resilient in their lives. With both together, we have the scissors effect for a more peaceful society.
The “scissors effect.” Nice metaphor. Thanks for the comment.
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