Sticks & Stones & Stereotypes

by Meaghan Morris

© all rights reserved

Every time someone learns to chant that ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me’, a lesson is passed on about language. Several lessons, really. We learn, first of all, to tell a whopping lie about language and usually, about ourselves. Names can hurt all right, even if they don’t break bones; as children, we learn to say they can’t, precisely because they just have (There, there, don’t cry: remember, “Sticks and stones …”). Names hurt hearts and minds and souls, and a ‘me’ truly never hurt by names would be utterly impervious to all other human beings, an angel or a sociopath, perhaps.

Yet the lesson of the chant is not itself a lie, but a magical theory of language: ‘saying makes it so’. The chant is an incantation, a spell that we cast at aggressors to keep the power of their words at bay. When someone pelts words at us to try to hurt our feelings, we block them with a ritual formula that vows they will never succeed. So, like all good spells, this formula ‘means’ something different from what it seems to say: ‘names can never hurt me’ means ‘you can’t hurt me; who cares what you think? your insults are powerless; you don’t matter, and I am stronger than you are’.

We learn that language is powerful, and we can do things to each other with words; that language is a social bond, as flexible as it as forceful; and that meaning depends on how we use language in all the varying situations of life. From its singsong cadence, we also learn something obvious that language moralists forget when they call some words good and others irredeemably bad: there’s a lot more to language than names. The powers of language, written or spoken, include rhythm, tone, accent, pitch, and rhyme as well as reason. Much more than a way of describing things and trading information, language is a relationship between people. However routine or perfunctory most everyday contact may be, we touch each other with words.

Some verbal gestures pack a wallop no magic spell can contain. I learned this one morning in about 1965, when I walked to school like every other day, past the cow paddock and the shops, under the railway bridge and past the prison farm, then up the road dividing the brick of Maitland Girls’ High School from the stone of Maitland Gaol. Since I did this every day, I hardly ever watched where I was going; sleepy from reading into the night and doing homework before breakfast, I floated, snoozed and chatted myself to school. On that particular morning, from half way up the hill even I could see through my dreamy haze the white letters on the dull brick wall: MEAGHAN MORRIS IS A SLUT. They seemed to be enormous, sky high. And so bright! As the world froze quietly inside me, I wondered if people could see my name from the main street miles away. No doubt at all, every pupil and teacher could; girls were hanging off the fence by their fingernails to see what I would do.

Verbally humiliated, I should have been shattered but I wasn’t. Maybe all that chanting toughened me up. At any rate, the wall was slinging the wrong name at the wrong fourteen year old virgin. Far from being a slut, I was still a swot. The message should have read (in the idiom of those halcyon days of Australian cultural unity), MEAGHAN MORRIS READS DIRTY BOOKS. My downfall was a book by Bertrand Russell, probably Why I Am Not A Christian. I found it in the town library and it shocked me to the core: what if people could live good lives without going to church; what if I tried to think for myself what the right way to live might be; what if you could love someone without getting married?

Reading didn’t make me a slut. Talking about it did. On the bus, I told a boy I knew slightly about this amazing book I was reading. Not a total fool, I confided in him only because I thought he was like me, ‘bookish’ picked on, I’d heard, by the boys at school. In the solitude of my five minutes as a scapegoat, I understood he’d sold me out to buy in with those boys. I couldn’t really blame him. Besides, ‘slut’ was a step up from ‘swot’– if both were just rude names for reading — a warmer, more friendly social identity. I hitched up my uniform, grew my hair, and never looked back.

Because we touch each other with words, language passes on values: yes, no, good, bad, maybe, so so … what if? The writing on that wall spelt out the ‘codes’ of language and my community in mid 1960s Australia. It told me that ideas were dangerous when merely to ask ‘what if?’ could put you beyond the pale; that thinking freely was a sin and speaking openly a vice; that conformity was valued more than truth. It also told me, ‘it’s different for girls’: a boy swot might have been called a ‘poof’ instead of a slut, but no boy would have been punished by his peers for contemplating sex outside marriage, unless (unthinkably in those days), he declared himself a poof. So it told me my egalitarian society had rigid, intolerant rules of speech that assured my inequality.

‘PC language’: the boot on the other’s foot?
Most people can tell a story about facing up to insults, abuse, unpopularity or even persecution at some point in their lives. Whether told as funny anecdotes, painful confessions, or moral fables, whether recounting trivial incidents or one person’s experience of mass suffering and oppression, these stories are important to those who tell them. They help us explain who we are and how we feel about others in the present. They are not much help in understanding the fuss about so called ‘politically correct’ language that has broken out over the past few years. They don’t explain why ‘speech codes’ have suddenly appeared in workplaces, public organisations and universities, supposedly bastions of free speech, or what these codes have to do with censorship, anti-vilification laws, defamation and protests about advertisements. At best, tales of tough times survived in closed, intolerant little communities may have an indirect bearing on debates about what counts as civil behaviour in big, diverse social spaces densely populated by strangers and open to the world.

True, after all the hysteria and myth mongering of recent years about the ‘enforcement’ of ‘PC’ language in universities, it’s useful to remember just how strictly speech was policed back in the good old days when minorities weren’t noisy; how effectively name calling, stereotyping, shunning and moral pressure kept women, wogs and weirdos in their place; how these modern methods of imposing orthodoxy without breaking bones were not invented in the 1980s by academic leftists and their media mates.

There is always orthodoxy in human affairs, and someone who loves to impose it. For people puzzled by an abrasive new sensitivity to words in social life, or stung by a hostile reaction to their harmless comment as ‘sexist’ or ‘racist’, it is plausible as well as comforting to believe there is nothing new in all this — just another rabid bunch of bullies telling ordinary people how to talk. The fuss is blamed on former scapegoats, exacting revenge for real or imagined slights in the past, the boot on the other’s foot.

It happens. But it would be wrong to suggest that nothing changes under the sun but the scapegoats in season — wogs and weirdos a while ago, rednecks and Anglo Celtics yesterday, ‘feminazis’ and ‘the Aboriginal industry’ today. Shifts in language are actually related to deep social change. Even ‘orthodoxy’ isn’t what it used to be in Christian dominated societies. Once it was the name of a state to which almost everyone sane aspired. Now, ‘orthodoxy’ is a term of abuse for other people’s beliefs, and those who want to influence public opinion routinely pose as heretics often in the name of ‘the silent majority’.

All this overblown rhetoric obscures the fact that most of the time in modern democracies we are comparing different orthodoxies and assessing their implications. Faced with rival models of how we ought to act — one that relentlessly stomps on every single expression of social prejudice, or one that bellows ‘I can call your kid a mongrel if I want to, so you shut up about it!’ — the practical issue before us has nothing to do with ‘correctness’ in the sense of conformity to an orthodoxy. It is which of these codes of behaviour is more likely to shape a tolerant society that cherishes debate, protects dissent, and gives us all a chance to participate.

Language does have a new kind of volatility in Australian social and economic life. When Queensland National Party MP Bob Katter mixed up ‘slanty’ and ‘squinty’ in an unloving ode to feminazi eyes, all hell broke loose in the media. Paul Keating caused an international incident when he called the Malaysian Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir, recalcitrant instead of intransigent. Watching the feeding frenzy that follows whenever somebody trips on their tongue, it’s not surprising if everyone who has ever mixed up a few words wonders when their turn will come.

Today, words, symbols, images, interpersonal gestures, the relationships they create and the feelings they provoke are the very stuff of the service and culture industries, in which carelessly giving offence is bad business practice and employment is insecure. New communications technologies and the expansion of education and tourism have, quite as powerfully as immigration and multiculturalism, increased our exposure to other people’s parochialisms and to ideas of civility that differ from our own. The noise of all this difference can no more be kept out of Australian social spaces than words can be stripped of their social power.

Courtesy or euphemism: what are speech codes for?
In a very funny film called Demolition Man , Sylvester Stallone plays a violent, late twentieth century cop thawed out of cryogenic prison by the wimps who pass for cops in a politically correct future. Meat eating, hostility and carnal sex are forbidden (it’s a girlish sort of fascism) and machines spew out fines whenever someone says a bad word. Unable to use the hi tech toilets, Sly murmurs obscenities at one of these machines to get a good supply of paper.

Contrary to rumour, this is not how things actually work in Australian universities with equal opportunity language strategies and peculiar plumbing. ‘Speech codes’ is an American term, much less of a mouthful than Australian bureaucracy’s ‘guidelines for the use of non discriminatory language’, but also a lot less accurate for our conditions. Codes can be compulsory, like road rules. Guidelines are not. Codes may formalise moral philosophies, guidelines make suggestions for how to get things done. Call them what you will, they are not lists of bad words and they do not turn red blooded men and women vegetarian.

Basically, these guidelines give an etiquette for dealing with the complexity of our own society. As a guide to good manners in the midst of diversity it is more experimental, but much simpler, than the etiquettes of old which tried to produce uniformity. It boils down to four basic principles of politeness: don’t harp about people’s differences when it isn’t necessary; do try to treat everyone equally and fairly; don’t use euphemisms for disabilities or make jocular remarks to people you don’t know about their race, their looks or their sexuality; do call people whatever they prefer to be called, and if you don’t know, ask them. In what sort of a society are these principles thought sinister or laughable? Not ours, I hope. Speech guidelines do not suggest euphemistic ways of talking about people but polite ways of talking to them; not piety behind the back, but courtesy face to face. There is a difference. Robert Hughes may be right to say in Culture of Complaint that ‘the usual American response to inequality is to rename it, in the hope that it will then go away’. (Perhaps Americans exist who say ‘differently abled’ with a straight face, though I have never seen it done). But the point about sharing a workplace with people is that they do not go away, and they are neither named nor ‘renamed’ in their absence. Of course all the inequality in the world does not vanish when we encourage respect.

Language is a collective product, and no one can control it or prevent it from changing. PC language sets out to help us represent the social world the way it is now, not the way it was thirty years ago. In the process, it easily becomes coy, pedantic and prissy. But when it gets too absurd or fails to serve any useful purpose, people laugh, quarrel about it, criticise each other and come up with better ideas. Fussing a little bit about phrasing and names can actually help reduce the need for ‘special delicacy’ in talking together about important things.

Speech codes have no hope whatsoever of eradicating inequality and intolerance; they do help create spaces of temporary equality, working tolerance, in which everyone has a good chance to participate. The price of retreating from this effort is one that almost all of us would have to pay.


Meaghan Morris is a senior ARC Fellow at the University of Technology, Sydney and chair of the Human Rights Council of Australia.

This piece is extracted with permission from The Retreat from Tolerance, edited by Phillip Adams, ABC Books.


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