Hurtful Words: On the Uneasy Triangle of Compassion, Hate and the Freedom of Speech

Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me!


I’ve been punched in the nose, beaten with a leather belt, raped as a teenager, and had my head slammed into a bus window by a school bully and into a wooden sofa frame by my father.  I am in no way discounting the physical pain and terror I endured or the fact that some of these situations took me years to face and validate.  But throughout my life what has held the most power over me are the words others have told me about who I am supposed to be.  Even at age forty, on a bad day, during a bad week, when I’ve been less than vigilant and forgotten who I am, it is the words of others—parents, grandparents, in-laws, friends, teachers, bosses, strangers—that pop up like targets on a shooting range.  Careless, cruel, spoken for my own supposed good: these words tell me little about myself and more about the self-esteem of the person who uttered them.  I understand this and yet, in my lowest moments, these words battle the truth of who I am.  If I really think about it, I no longer believe what others have told me about myself.  I really don’t.  But when I am down, these words are like slipping on my old tennis shoes that are ripped at the seams and hurt my feet: they still manage to fit. 

Even yesterday, I was hurt by careless words.  Less than a week ago my cat died.  In order to make sense of it, I wrote a blog about the experience.  Although I questioned whether it was self-exploitation in the rawest form, I posted it to my Facebook page.  But a woman I don’t know—a friend of a friend of a friend—saw the photo of my cat, didn’t bother to read the blog and posted an insensitive comment on my wall.  In the midst of my grief, this woman’s lack of compassion renewed my sadness.  I felt vulnerable, raw and newly exhausted.  I hurt.  Worse, those hurtful words bracketing a lovely photo of my cat sullied what I had written, the photo itself, my experiences and the memories.  In my grief, that remark, flippant and rude, somehow invalidated everything I had gone through.  It even invalidated all of the positive, heartfelt comments of others.  The understanding and love.  Like a piece of shit thrown into the middle of a birthday party, this woman’s words pushed my focus away.  They seemed to destroy all of the strides I had made in dealing with my grief.  Before I responded, I read this post over and over again.  I let the emotions come: shock, sadness, anger, outrage.  Then I responded.  I left out the filthy four-letter word I wanted to write and instead deliberately attempted to school this woman on compassion. 

I’ll be honest: I checked my Facebook page more yesterday than I have done in the past.  The woman never responded but others did.  It was gratifying how quickly people came to my defense; how willing they were to call her out.  But something changed within me: the reactions of others coupled with how many times I reread this woman’s comments began to defuse the pain I felt.  I even thought of deleting her post, my reply and those of the others.  But I didn’t.  The basest part of me still upset wanted to leave the conversation intact simply to cast shame upon this woman.  I can admit this.  But the deeper part of me that knows my truth, that doesn’t really believe or give power to what this woman said, knows why the conversation must remain posted: as hurtful as her words are, this woman has a right to express them.


My Facebook page and my blog, both designed to support the themes of my workshop series, are open to everyone.  They are public.  With much resignation, I have made them so.  I’m not saying I deserve what the woman wrote.  I don’t.  But I cannot be totally unprepared or shocked when an uncaring individual makes her views known.  And someday, views expressed may even be hateful, racist, homophobic, defensive or crazy.  I have to be okay with this possibility.  I have to allow for the fact of it.

Why?  I am a writer.  Freedom of Speech is tantamount to my next breath.

How dramatic, you might say.  But as a writer, I owe a world of debt to those writers and thinkers who were courageous enough to give voice to thoughts that challenged corruption and sought truth.  People who were imprisoned or killed for simply uttering and writing words that were deemed offensive.  People like Fyodor Dostoyevsky who in 1848, was blindfolded in front of a firing squad.  At the very last moment, surrounded by the grim and determined silence of the shooters, with the cold sweat of imminent death clinging to him, Dostoyevsky was granted a reprieve, only to spend years in a Siberian prison.  Or Alexander Solzhenitsyn sentenced to eight years in a labor camp.  Or women in the early part of the twentieth century imprisoned for passing out literature on birth control.  Or Lenny Bruce.  Or Medgar Evers.  Martin Luther King, Jr.  Malcolm X.  Or the thousands of others who used their words to bring benefit to the world and were ground down because of them.  I can never repay those sacrifices except in one way: if I am to call myself writer, then I must champion Freedom of Speech.  Always.  Freedom of Speech must be honored.  Cherished.  And universally recognized, even as it is being misused by those who cherish nothing.

How then can Freedom of Speech be honored when too many make a mockery of it?  When instead of fighting for a legitimate cause that tries to uplift all of humanity, it spits on those deemed less than human?  How can we reconcile the point when our freedoms inch too closely to hate crime?

Until someone throws the first punch or the first bomb—when the fire behind the words actually manifests into negative action—we can’t.  We have to let it be. 

And this is the sticky, sickening hell of the Freedom of Speech.  This is the part that is hard even for me.  Especially for me. 

As a former military wife, I cannot imagine the pain caused by a screaming horde of supposed Christians picketing outside of a military funeral.  As a woman, I cannot ignore the pain a young woman must feel as she is taunted, condemned and forced to look at giant posters of bloody fetuses as she picks her way into an abortion clinic.  As the wife of a man who was raised Jewish, I cannot imagine the pain and horror of neo-Nazis petitioning to march in a city’s Jewish neighborhoods in which Holocaust survivors still reside.

The lack of compassion and the hatred that hang from the shirt tails of the Freedom of Speech, dragging it down, sicken me to my core.  Emotionally, the part that can so easily be hurt by insensitive words, I feel the world would be a much better place without the racists, the anti-Semites, the homophobes, a specific church from Topeka, Kansas, and a certain woman who posted on my Facebook page.  They bring nothing but strife into the world.  But the part of me that truly understands and values the cost of the Freedom of Speech realizes these people have the right to express themselves.  Until they don’t.  But until they misstep into physical violence, we have to put up with them.  After all, we cannot legislate compassion or common sense.  And once we start legislating against what many of us find offensive, it won’t be long before everything is offensive and condemnable.  In the meantime, words are allowed to hurt.  These words hurt especially: to protect my freedoms, I must open the door to hate.

Words also heal.  And I know one thing for sure: if more of us chose our words with wisdom and compassion, defusing the careless and cruel words of those whose beliefs and self-esteems are limited by hate becomes that much easier.  Words once again become honorable.

I can think of no better salve for the scars left behind.

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