The Values of Science: The Oxford Amnesty Lectures 1997

By Wes Williams | Go to book overview
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What Shall We Tell the Children?

Nicholas Humphrey

"Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me," the proverb goes. And since, like most proverbs, this one captures at least part of the truth, it makes sense that Amnesty International should have devoted most of its efforts to protecting people from the menace of sticks and stones, not words. Worrying about words must have seemed something of a luxury.

Still the proverb, like most proverbs, is also in part obviously false. The fact is that words can hurt. For a start, they can hurt people indirectly by inciting others to hurt them: a crusade preached by a pope, racist propaganda from the Nazis, malevolent gossip from a rival. They can hurt people not so indirectly by inciting them to take actions that harm themselves: the lies of a false prophet, the blackmail of a bully, the flattery of a seducer. And words can hurt directly, too: the lash of a malicious tongue, the dreaded message carried by a telegram, the spiteful onslaught that makes the hearer beg the tormentor say no more.

Sometimes, indeed, mere words can kill outright. There is a story by Christopher Cherniak about a deadly "word-virus" that appeared one night on a computer screen.1 It took the form of a brain-teaser, a riddle so paradoxical that it fatally twisted the mind of all those who heard or read it, making that person fall into an irreversible coma. A fiction? Yes, of course. But a fiction with some horrible parallels in the real world. There have been all too many examples historically of how words can take possession of a person's mind, destroying the will to live. Think, for example, of so-called voodoo death. The witch-doctor has merely to cast a spell of death on someone, and within hours the victim will collapse and die. Or, on a larger and more dreadful scale, think of the mass suicide at Jonestown in Guyana in 1972. The cult leader Jim Jones had only to plant


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