"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me" retorted kids in my neighborhood when we were called an unkind name. More often than not, the "bully" would simply lose interest. That didn't mean the recipient was immune to the bite of words, but it was pretty short-lived.
Today, "cyber bullying" takes name-calling to new heights over the Internet. High school students find their good names dragged through the mud as peers fabricate stories or summarize fleeting impressions about them in a few pejorative words.
In my town, one website provides a forum for such comments, leaving students hurt, angry, and embarrassed. As a result, parents and other critics are organizing to close down the site. Some dub this kind of rumor mill the talk radio of this century, feeding the frenzy for new ways to trash our fellowman. These advocates are in a standoff with site owners and others who claim freedom of speech is at risk (see Los Angeles Times, April 17). While the Internet is not to blame, its easy access and broadcast distribution magnify a preexisting situation. The real problem is the mean-spiritedness behind such comments.
No one wins from any kind of name-calling. It fingers at least two victims: the one targeted and the perpetrator, who believes one gains esteem by defaming another. In the case of the Internet, a third body of victims are those fascinated with the rumor mongering, thus stealing away time that could be devoted to more productive pursuits.
Are we to become one another's victims, or is there higher ground? Doesn't this spotlight on name-calling serve as a wake-up to each of us to look at what we're first thinking, then saying, about another?
I've found that the time-honored Ten Commandments hold the key to a practical set of rules for behavior. Each of them in some way touches on the subject of name-calling, but to me, the one that specifically addresses the question is the ninth: "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour" (Ex. 20:16). Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of this newspaper and of the church that publishes it, once explained it like this: "... thou shalt not utter a lie, either mentally or audibly, nor cause it to be thought" ("Miscellaneous Writings 1883-1896," pg. 67). This definition stretches the boundaries of this directive to include the vast reaches of the Internet.
Bearing false witness causes one to break other commandments by killing the spirit of another person or stealing his or her happiness. It adulterates a perception of everyone as the image and likeness of God, as described in the first chapter of Genesis. No matter how seductive gossip, stretching a story, or an out-and-out lie about someone seems, the world would be a better place if we were all truthful about one another in both thought and speech. Each of us would be more at peace about ourselves and would live in greater harmony with those around us.
In the passage cited above, Mrs. Eddy continued, "Obedience to these commandments is indispensable to health, happiness, and length of days."
I've had the opportunity to prove this in my life. Many years ago I said some things about my employer that were true but shouldn't have been said. I wished I could take back what I said. A couple of days later, my shoulder was so painful that it was impossible for me to move. I spent several nights in agony. Finally, I realized I felt guilty about what I had said and that I had inadvertently offended people. Through prayer, I wanted to set the record straight.
The Bible counsels: "Judge not according to the appearance, but judge righteous judgment" (John 7:24). I had called my employer incompetent according to the appearance of things rather than naming him, as is actually the case, as capable, intelligent, wise, and thoughtful. These were his God-derived qualities. I had done the same to myself - defamed my name by believing I had mistreated another instead of recognizing that, as the image and likeness of Love, I couldn't be tempted to stoop to petty gossip.
Once I was clear about the nature of each of us, the harmony was restored both for myself physically, and for those affected by my actions. Judging others rightly creates an environment in which everyone can grow and prosper and that eliminates name-calling. What better gift can we offer our children, spouses, co-workers, and the world?