As no less an authority on the universe than George Carlin pointed out, parents like to make rules. They supplement rules with various bits of seemingly sage advice. One of my mom’s favorites was “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me.” I cannot recall the precise circumstances when I first heard this old saw, but from the very first it bothered me. I have a vague memory, perhaps confabulated, of coming in from outdoor play around the age of six because one of the neighbor kids, probably my friend Homer, had called me a “bad name.” I’m not sure whether I expected mere sympathy or whether I thought my mom would go and extract some sort of retribution. But I didn’t get either kind of satisfaction. Instead, I got this saying quoted at me.
So, one reason I probably didn’t like it was that I didn’t find it at all satisfying in the way that a hug might have been and certainly not in the self-righteous and smug way that having Homer being punished would have done. Was this the harbinger of a new chapter in our parent-child relationship? (No, I probably didn’t use the word “harbinger” back then, but I knew what “change” meant.) Instead of comfort, my parents would now dispense wisdom? Beyond that, this particular saying hurt my artistic sensibility. “Sticks and stones will break my bones.” Now, there was a rhyme scheme and scan I could related to. Nice even rhythm. Nice rhyme. But then it kind of goes to hell. “But names will never hurt…me.” ? How does that end with “hurt me.” Which syllable is unaccented? And what does “me” rhyme with here? You may as well just jam your hand down on C,D,E,F, and G at the same time and maybe the black keys between as well. By the way, my parents absolutely objected to that action on my part. I had to play piano “nicely” or not at all.
Beyond that, the “message” of this aphorism appeared quite cloudy if not opaque. Was my mother suggesting that if I wanted to “get back at” my buddy Homer, I should not come to her with my complaints but find a way to break his bones — perhaps using sticks and stones? I couldn’t see myself doing that. Even then I knew broken bones took a long time to heal. If I broke his bones, it could interfere with baseball, hide and seek, cops and robbers, cowboys and indians. Perhaps “names can never hurt me” provided the crux of the message and the sticks and stones were just there for contrast effects. Taken by itself, “names can never hurt me” seemed patently absurd. If I hadn’t felt hurt, I wouldn’t have bothered to tell her about it.
Even at six, the logic implied by this aphorism offended my aesthetic sense even more than the bad poetry. Yeah, true enough, sticks and stones could break your bones. That made sense. But that didn’t mean that these were the only weapons of bodily destruction. I already knew people could get hurt by guns, knives, cars, and disease. Why are the sticks and stones there at all? Why not just say, “If someone calls you a name, just ignore it.”? More subtle for a young child might be, “If someone calls you a name, whether or not that hurts you depends on how you take it.” Yeah, I might use that one today in psychotherapy with adults. I don’t think it would make much sense to a six year old. At least, I don’t think it would have made much sense to me.
As I mentioned, the sticks and stones part did make sense. Yet, I found it surprising that my mom would even mention them as possibilities. Whenever she — or any of the other moms — found us “sword fighting” with sticks, they would warn us that someone was about to lose an eye. This sounded extremely scary and yet a little intriguing. How could you “lose” your eye? Wouldn’t you just use your other eye to go find it? Did they mean you could have your eye injured? Anyway, none of us had the least intention of trying to stab someone else’s eye. And we certainly were going to to prevent our own eye from being stabbed. So what was the problem? It seemed as though adults found it very difficult to say what they actually meant. When it came to rock fights, parents seemed to focus on the same concern — losing an eye. Almost all of the boys I knew participated in both “sword” fights with sticks and in rock fights. Yet, none of us had ever lost an eye. In school, I searched the faces of kids from every grade (up to sixth) and none of the kids in the entire school had ever lost an eye. So, this seemed to me, and apparently all the other boys, to be a rather far-fetched fear.
When we had stone fights and stick fights, none of us tried to poke out an eye. Indeed, none of us tried even to break a bone. We tried to inflict a little damage on each other; we did want to make it “hurt” but not enough to break a bone. The little damage we rained on each other mostly constituted collateral damage. Our main purpose: re-enact the “battles” we had seen on TV. Drama, not pain, and certainly not injury, provided our main source of joy when it came to fights just as when we played “Cowboys and Indians” or “Cops and Robbers” we had no intention of putting a bullet through someone’s heart.
Even the nicely rhyming first part of that aphorism disturbed me. It hinted to me that a far meaner and crueler world existed out there. In that world, kids didn’t just want to throw stones and hit with sticks in order to have some dramatic fun; in that world, kids actually wanted to break each other’s bones! What neighborhood was that? I had occasionally heard my parents and grandparents talk about “tough neighborhoods.” Were those neighborhoods the ones where kids wanted to break each other’s bones? What would be the point? Wouldn’t that just make the other kid less fun to play with? If they had a broken leg, they couldn’t run. If they had a broken arm, they’d have to swing the bat with one hand. It made zero sense. Zero.
The application of any term leaves gray areas. We like to think that definitions are clear-cut, but seldom indeed does nature provide us with chip chop clarity when it comes to classes and definitions. For example, is a baseball bat a “stick”? Sometimes, baseball players refer to their bats as sticks, but in the case of well-muscled professional ball players, I always thought this provided a kind of joke. Indeed, with a (mere) “stick” they can hit a baseball over 300 feet! But, after all isn’t a baseball bat a kind of “stick”? It’s made of wood. It’s more or less in the shape of a branch of wood.
Well, whether you call it a “stick” or a “bat”, I can tell you that when a baseball bat gets swung at you and hits you in the chest full force, it is more than a little painful. Homer managed this deed. We were playing baseball with nearly a full set of players down the block at a vacant lot. Homer was at bat with my baseball bat and my dad drove up telling me we had to go immediately. I walked over to get my bat but Homer stood resolute in the batter’s box. The pitcher threw and before I could back away, Homer swung the bat, swinging for the fences. Despite his name, Homer did not hit a home run or even a foul tip. He completely missed the ball although he did manage to make extremely solid contact with my sternum and ribs. It hurt. It hurt quite a bit actually, but the scarier part was that I couldn’t breathe. My dad came hurtling through the vacant lot and grabbed the bat from Homer. I still couldn’t breathe but I could tell I was still alive. I wasn’t so sure whether Homer would be for long. My dad had a very hot temper and, hit or no-hit, the idea that he would kill Homer sprang into my head and scared me more than the prospect that I would never be able to breathe again.
Indeed, I did breathe again (this should be obvious to you) but did get to spend some long hours in the “emergency room” waiting for X-rays. Nothing was broken. Homer and I stopped hanging out. Eventually, Homer’s dad come to talk with me and explain that it was an accident. He pointed out that Homer and I played together a lot and we were both missing out. Forgiving Homer seemed pretty easy actually. I myself hate to leave a game half finished or lose a turn at bat. In baseball, you only *rarely* get to bat. If full teams are playing, you only get to bat one out of 18 times! We seldom had a full complement of players in my neighborhood, but it was still rare that you got a chance at bat.
Indeed, “sticks” can break your bones, although luck sided with me that day and no ribs were broken. It could have been worse. Much worse. The red mark of the bat was directly over my heart. I suppose a piece of rib could have gone shooting into my heart which would not have been particularly good for anyone. But while we’er on the subject of hearts, how can anyone say, “names will never hurt me”? Of course, it hurts when people call someone a hurtful name. Kids call each other names. When they do it on purpose, they are generally doing it to precisely to hurt the other kid. That isn’t universally true. When I had met my neighbor a few years ago and called her a S***A**, I had no idea what it meant. It was just her way of saying hello. And, sometimes, even adults call people names and mean it as a compliment when it is actually not taken as such.
For example, when I was very young, I had a hard time gaining weight even though I wanted to. This is certainly no longer true; now, I have the opposite problem. But I still don’t take kindly to people (generally women) calling me “skinny.” In fact, I don’t think any guy I know wants to be called “skinny” but women seem to think it’s a complement. Needless to say, men are far more likely to say various things to women that are not appreciated at all. Most guys would love to be called “sexy” and find it difficult to understand why a woman would not just take this as a compliment. That’s basically because guys are typically taken “seriously” while women have to fight their whole lives to be taken seriously; that is, to be treated as a person with intelligence, goals, a unique viewpoint and so on and not simply as a “thing” whose main purpose is to please men and propagate the species.
Imagine that you overhear a guy saying something that is clearly meant to be derogatory to a woman. What would you do? Well, I guarantee that you will not win many points if you walk up to the woman right away and say, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” I don’t recommend it. I especially don’t recommend it if the woman happens to have a large stick or stone in her possession. Now, let’s imagine instead that there is one particular guy who makes a habit out of calling people derogatory names. He calls many women derogatory names on many occasions. In fact, whenever anyone disagrees with him about anything, he calls that person something derogatory. In fact, name-calling seems to be the most sophisticated type of argument he can muster. In school, we had a few kids that occasionally acted like this and we had a name for them: bullies. The few kids who were “bullies” were never very popular. They were pretty much outcasts.
Bullies act nothing like heroes. A bully is typically driven by a deep fear of being nothing. Quite probably, their parents either spoiled them silly or beat them senseless or both. Bullies had no self-esteem and so any time things didn’t go their way or someone disagreed with them, it brought up deep feelings of inadequacy. The only mechanism that they had for dealing with these feelings was to try to overpower the opposition. They would lie, steal, and cheat and scream bloody murder until they got their way. Sometimes in grade school, a bully would be particularly strong physically, but it wasn’t really a necessity. In junior high and high school, a girl was just as likely to be a “bully” as a guy although they would go about their name calling and power trips in a different way. Sometimes a whole gang of kids would get together and be bullies together. Their idea of a fun time was to pick a fight where the odds were five to one or ten to one. The whole gang would beat up someone because that way they could insure a win. Unless something happens to change such a person fundamentally, they typically graduate from being a child bully to being a teen bully in a gang to being a criminal in a criminal gang.
But not always. Sometimes such folk end up being a “boss.” They don’t primarily work as a boss because they like to make good things happen. No, they enjoy being the boss because they can order other people around. Sometimes such people end up as police and what they enjoy most about the job is ordering other people around. Because they have no confidence in their ability to solve problems or, indeed, do anything productive, they shake down others who can actually produce things. Now, please understand that most bosses just want to get things done and most police really want to help people. The “bullies” in these positions are a small minority. Sometimes, the bullies grow up to be wife beaters or child beaters or child molesters. On rare occasions, they become dictators. In this role, they use their power to enhance their power. They enjoy having things their way. They enjoy shouting down their opposition. They enjoy getting rid of their opposition. They cannot stand the idea that they may be wrong or lacking in some ability.
To give just one example, consider the case of Altshuler, a Russian who invented a way of inventing called TRIZ. (You can find it on google). He was a Russian inventor who wrote a sincere letter to Stalin suggesting that Russians needed to be more inventive. To the thin skinned bully Stalin, this suggestion for how to *improve* Russia becomes an implied criticism and Altshuler was sent to Siberia where he got to cut trees into sticks and break rocks into stones. This is one essential problem with bullies. They cannot face facts and instead insist on their own version of the truth. At long last, every such bully becomes more and more dissociated from reality. Essentially, they are insane, but they are not called by that name, because no-one wants to go to Siberia. No-one wants to give them an honest assessment of a military situation so, despite their military ambitions and initial successes, they ultimately must fail. Of course, on the way to their personal failures, such people become responsible for many deaths. They would rather sentence millions to die rather than face their own fundamental inadequacy.
A bully like Stalin or Hitler, however, cannot possibly be a nation-wide bully without arousing the bully in many of his countrymen. Stalin himself didn’t put 50 million of his own countrymen to death. He had to rely on the actions of many “sub-bullies”; people who would carry out his wishes or face the consequences (which, without the collaboration of many of his countrymen would be nothing; but with the collaboration of other sub-bullies would be significant, even deadly). So, here we have an interesting conundrum. The bully wants absolute power but cannot achieve that power without the active cooperation of hordes of other sub-bullies. The dictator needs to set up a system to help him be the biggest bully he can be. Without that help, he is forced to face up to how weak and powerless he is personally.
These types of national bullies have arisen many times in many eras and in many different nations. So we cannot blame the “Russians” or the “Germans” or the “Spanish” or the “French” or the “English” for succumbing to being a sub-bully who joins right in on the name calling, the stone throwing and the stick wielding. Nope. Too easy. And too inaccurate. We all need to look within to discover how and why we might ourselves become a sub-bully and then to determine how to thwart that tendency. If you and I would like to become and be called something other than sub-bullies, we need to appreciate our own unique perspectives and abilities and celebrate them. As professor Mad-Eye Moody once famously said, “constant vigilance.” Look for opportunities to give, to cooperate, to provide, to learn, to commit acts of compassion and kindness to every person regardless of what they are called.
This post is another in the series called “Schooled Haze” — each is a short story illustrating how people reflect back on earlier experiences in the hope of making sense of them in the light of subsequent experiences — something an Artificial General Intelligence system would also have to be capable of.