I played football all throughout middle and high school, which means I spent a pretty good chunk of my teenage years under the watchful eyes of referees. One of the most important rules I learned was to never be seen retaliating physically. No matter what was said to me, no matter what was done to me, hitting or pushing back would always get me flagged. This concept, that physical contact and aggression needs to be regulated, extends far beyond the football field, and into places as diverse as the workplace and the home. However, very few rules govern what we say to each other, and in the past few days I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Why do we work so hard to control one but not the other?
It’s not, no matter what nursery rhymes say, because words aren’t truly painful or damaging, nor is it because the effects of verbal violence don’t last. A study done at Harvard University revealed that repeated verbal abuse can actually create post-traumatic stress disorder in victims, and often leads to higher rates of delinquency, physical aggression, and social problems in those children as they grow older. The importance of this is almost impossible to understate. Verbal violence can give those who suffer it the same disorder experienced by soldiers fighting in a war, and often has the exact same effects on sufferers as physical abuse.
The problems with verbal abuse don't end there. It’s also more common than physical abuse: 63% of parents in one study reported on ore more instances of verbal aggression toward their children. Furthermore, verbal abuse is easier to perpetrate: unlike physical violence, which is generally hard (but not impossible) to pull off against someone who’s more physically imposing, emotional abuse can be done to anyone by anyone. Finally, Verbal violence is more likely to be a continued and habitual occurrence than physical abuse according to Martin Teicher, associate professor of psychiatry at Mclean Hospital.
In light of all this information, why do we spend so little effort regulating verbal abuse? At the end of the day, the most likely answer is simply because physical violence is easier to see. After all, physical violence often (but not always) leaves marks that can be identified if not concealed. Verbal violence leaves none of those same marks. There are no bruises or black eyes when we assault each other verbally, just the kind of pain that’s acutely emotional, and thus incredibly hard to see. Because of this, regulating verbal violence simply isn’t feasible in the same way that regulating physical violence is.
However, there’s another pervasive idea in our culture that makes it so hard to regulate verbal abuse, an idea that summed up in the second half of a popular children’s rhyme “words can never hurt me.” This idea can’t continue. We can’t afford to be careless with our words, as if the things we say to one another are inconsequential. We need to recognize that words can hurt just as much and have just as much impact on our life as a closed fist and take our responsibility to avoid verbal violence as seriously as possible. After all, no one else can do it for us.
With Excitement and Optimism,