We all know the adage that sticks and stones may break our bones but names will never hurt us. We also all know that the adage is a load of crap. Names do hurt and yet we often teach our children that names are meaningless--and we say so with full assurance that we are right.
This morning, my 8-year-old daughter was nearly in tears because her 5-year-old brother called her "poopy-pants." Poopy-pants? Really? You're upset because a 5-year-old called you poopy-pants? My sage advice was that he's a 5-year-old and is obviously rather foolish and thus his words are nothing to be offended at. Would I be offended in the slightest if some 5-year-old called me poopy-pants? Of course not! It is absolutely ridiculous and I know darn well that my pants aren't poopy. There is no pain there whatsoever.
On my drive to work, however, wondering why children have to be so ridiculous, I got to thinking about the names that would offend me. If someone called me a name at work, assuming they meant it and used something a bit more mature than "poopy-pants," I would indeed be offended. But why? I would be flustered at the very least even if a stranger called me a name and even if I was not to blame for any wrong accused of me. But why? I think the answer is because I see such people as near equals to me. I am just some random guy and they are just some random person.
On the internet, I am just as much a random troll as the next person and so we equally take offense at name-calling. I have since learned to brush much of it aside, but I do so by recognizing that they are beneath me. They are non-intellectuals who resort to name-calling for lack of sufficient intelligence to formulate a proper argument. This line of reasoning did not come naturally, of course, and it is by no means an easy thing to master. It is too easy to see any person on Facebook or on forums as an equal and we have no real means to distinguish.
The reason it hurts when an equal (or a superior) calls us names is because we put some amount of trust in their perception. We may not believe them, but we may wonder, consider, and ponder. With enough names, we begin to identify with the ill-will and believe something is indeed wrong with us. Anyone beneath me could not possibly hurt me with names unless I just happen to already agree with them and they simply remind me. My 2-year-old loves to say "Daddy's MEAN!" whenever she does not get her way. I know I am not being mean and thus it does no damage coming from her. If my wife, on the other hand, tells me that I am mean, I am likely to take heart or else be offended that she might not see me in the light of my obvious perfection.
So I have three take-aways from this. The first is that "poopy-pants" from a 5-year-old might very well be painful to an 8-year-old sibling. As far as they are concerned, they are equals. They are both children under the reign of the parental units as much as my coworkers are equals to me under the reign of our boss. Age is not so much important.
The second take-away, is that we might want to be more conscious about to whom we are giving power to insult us. If we take offense, we are indicating that such a person is our equal or superior. Do we really believe this to be true in every case? Personally, holding to the wisdom that is in peaceful communications, I can easily see any other person as unwise who might call me names rather discourse congenially. They prove themselves beneath me by their own utterances thus providing the perfect excuse to shrug them off as fools. Again, easier said than done, but this is, after all, the exact advice we give our children who are far less mentally stable than us. Or, at least, they should be less stable than us.
Thirdly, we should be more careful with the names we call others. If we are name-calling our equals or those whom we hold power over, our words carry a significant weight. We might as well hit such people with a hammer. If a long-time friend starts calling me names, it is certainly going to hurt. If my boss calls me names, you can bet I'm going to feel squished, tiny, and meaningless as a bug under foot. Words hold power, but generally only against those to whom one already holds some form of power or equality. Names only lack power when they come from below which is how we, as parents, see insults such as "poopy-pants" coming from our 5-year-old or the kids on a playground. But such fiery arrows of the tongue are devastating when coming from above and quite painful when coming from a friend or equal. To a child, there is no one below. All names thus hurt but nothing hurts more than the disapproval of a parent. I guess I owe my daughter an apology for invalidating her pain.