(Picture Credit: Lindsey Jene Scalera)
By Chavis Jones
As a child, my mother often told me, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” It’s one of those rules that resurfaces in your imagination even into adulthood, serving as a lifelong reminder that is easily forgotten.
But there is another childhood saying that I also want to explore, one that I learned on the playgrounds rather than in my home: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words may never hurt me.” Recently, though, President Trump has led me to the realization that this adage may not be true at all.
Here in America, there is a long history of offensive language connected to violent action and dangerous policy. For example, the use of the “n-word” and a litany of other derogatory terms used to describe African-Americans are attached to a gruesome history of bondage, killing, denial of rights, and incarceration. Language has been used to decrease the value of particular groups of humans and deem them worthy of the substandard conditions that result from unjust policies and cultural rejection.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, President Trump entirely ignored the rule to say “nice things.” He instead embraced the type of speech that one would hope no child ever emulates.
He was recorded discussing grabbing women by the genitals.
He led a movement that questioned the citizenship of America’s first African-American president.
He discredited a judge on the basis of his ethnicity.
He has disparaged women using terms like “fat pig” and “slob”.
He has cast Mexican immigrants as rapists, criminals, and drug users.
He suggested that all African-Americans live in poverty, have no good schools, and have no jobs.
President Trump’s persistent disregard for the harmful impact of his words has provided a dangerous sense of legitimacy to those who have held onto the prejudices that decades of movements have tried to destroy.
After receiving one of Trump’s abusive remarks in the lead up to elections, then-candidate Jeb Bush told Trump that he was, “never going to be President of the United States by insulting his way to the presidency.” Well, we know how that worked out. And while he does perpetuate this problem, President Trump is also a byproduct of a culture that allows such bigoted language and disregard for the humanity of others to persist. His rise to the presidency represents a symptom of a chronic American illness of verbal dehumanization.
In the Civil Rights Movement, civil rights leaders not only fought to repeal laws, seek new amendments to the constitution, and unseat corrupt leaders, but they also sought to soften the heart of America to positive change and to shape its moral conscience for the better. Donald Trump’s election reveals the soft spot for bigotry that still remains in the heart of our nation.
Election Day reminded us that America’s march towards universal equality has not carried us as far as we may have suspected. Trump shows us how violent words have the capacity to become violent action when they emerge from the lips of powerful people. His discriminatory remarks towards Muslims, Mexican immigrants, and others are now connected to an insistence on banning the immigration of certain nations of people, a continued desire to build a wall along the Mexican border, and the use of “the mother of all bombs” before he reached his 100th day in office.
Our 45th President reminds me that I have to deepen my personal intolerance to the bigotry that emerges from the minds and mouths of those around me, because those words may have created the very platform on which President Trump took his oath of office.
Sticks and stones may break bones, but poorly chosen words may hurt an entire nation of people.