TAS Voices: Words Matter

By Josh Budde, Middle School Principal 

As you have already heard many times in your life, the words we use matter.  Everything we say communicates something. They help us tell stories, express how we feel, and share information with each other. Our words have power. Compliments and kind words can make people feel good.  Curse words can make people feel uncomfortable. And hate speech can make people feel fear and exclusion. It is always our choice which path we want to be on. 

Of course, we hope that everyone chooses to use kind words. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. We make a clear distinction at TAS between hate speech and impolite speech. Hate speech is used to demean, belittle, degrade and make others feel “less than." This includes such things as the n-word; calling people or things gay as a way to make fun of them; the b-word and related gender-based negative words. Hate speech targets someone’s identity, which is the set of visible and invisible characteristics we use to categorize and define ourselves and those around us, such as race, religion, body type, gender or sexual identity, to name a few. These words and this type of speech are never to be used here at school. Not in any language. Not in anger and not as a joke. It is important to emphasize this last part - no one may use the excuse that they were only joking if that joke is aimed at someone’s identity. No one’s laughter, not the target’s nor the bystander’s, gives anyone permission to be mean. These words are hurtful even when not used with the intention to hurt. 

Impolite speech, or “swear words,"  are words that you know you shouldn’t be using at school, and if you have to ask if a particular word is impolite, you probably already have your answer. While using swear words at school is not okay, we want it to be clear that using hate speech at school is far worse. 

There are likely going to be times when friends joke with each other, and it can be difficult to know if or when this is okay, but the most important thing for you to remember is that when someone tells you to stop, you stop. Maybe you made a mistake and thought something was okay to say - it might happen. But when you are asked to stop by the target or a bystander, whatever it is you are doing or saying, whether you intended harm or not, you must stop. If you continue, you can no longer say it was a misunderstanding or unintentional. 

If, however, you do make a mistake, take responsibility by acknowledging the impact of your words or actions, by making a sincere apology, by taking action to correct your mistake, and by reflecting so that you can learn from your mistake. 

This is not about whether or not joking with your friends is okay. What is more accurate is that I am asking you to think about how you are trying to make others feel before you speak. Is the funny thing you want to say really going to make the other person feel good? If you pause for just a few seconds before making a joke about someone’s identity, and decide not to make that joke, are you ever going to look back one day and regret that you didn’t say it, or are you more likely to regret it if you do say it? 

One of the most powerful means for helping us be an inclusive and caring community is for each of us to stand up to those who try to make us or others feel less than because of some part of their identity. If we see it happening, we need to take care of each other and stop it. If we do nothing, then our inactions are saying that what is happening is okay by us. Intervene appropriately by telling the person to stop or get help from an adult, but please understand that participating in the name-calling or retaliating is not an option. 

You may not know what every hateful word is nor do you need to. What is important is that you are advocating for yourself and for others when you hear something you believe is harmful. Trust your instincts; if you hear something that sounds mean or wrong, it probably is, whether you know the meaning of the words or not. 

We prefer to focus on positive ways to treat each other rather than on what not to do, but we think it is important to establish some understanding around this behavior as it can be very confusing. It is often necessary to describe what is not allowed in order to understand what is allowed so that from here we can talk about all the ways we can support each other. So, for the remainder of homeroom and beyond, we’d like to spend our time talking about language that lifts us up and about what to do rather than what not to do.