Why do we still care about name-calling?
To understand the pain caused by name-calling, and the larger implications of it, let’s look at the mechanics just a bit. For instance, what kinds of names are people called?
Name-calling can be sorted into three categories:
- Referring to someone as an animal or other non-human thing.
- Slurs that insinuate deviance, criminality, etc.
- Grouping of some kind — ethnic, religious, gender, or other group — often using an epithet.
These are all parts or manifestations of one of the eight major factors scientifically linked to evil behavior: Dehumanization.
- Referring to someone as an animal or other non-human thing is depersonalizing. This portrays the target as not human, and therefore not meriting humane treatment.
- Insinuating deviance, criminality, etc de-legitimizes the target’s claim to being treated with fairness and humanity.
- Grouping through ethnic, religious or other slur de-individualizes the target, stripping them of name, personality, and the personal traits we use to experience empathy.
The process of dehumanizing others is facilitated by status, power, and social connection. So, the idea of the popular kids as bullies isn’t just a stereotype: Having high status makes people more likely to dehumanize others. This places higher-status children and cliques at greater risk of bullying others through dehumanizing processes.
Dehumanizing a target also relieves an aggressor of distress they would otherwise feel for mistreating someone. Dehumanizing often involves a process called “moral exclusion” — assigning a reduced set of moral values and rules (social protections) to a group or person. In this way, dehumanization promotes behaviors like exclusion, violence, and support for violence.
Once outside the scope of normal morality and justice, the target finds themselves utterly without consideration. This explains the depth of cruelty we sometimes witness in bullying, lynching, and genocide.
Understanding the mental processes behind name-calling or labeling, lets us also understand why children experience such intense emotional distress from name-calling:
- Human beings are social animals that require social connection and support for mental and even physical well being. A child subjected to name-calling and the lowered or even excluded social status that may go with it, may not only have hurt feelings, but may suffer health consequences as well.
- For a human being “in the wild” social exclusion is literally a death sentence — particularly for a small and immature individual. On a primitive level, denial of one’s membership to the support group would be life threatening. And, primitive parts of us know this.
- Semantic dehumanization (verbally stripping someone of human status) lowers natural inhibitions to violence. So, the emotional distress caused by a frenzy of name-calling may be more than “hurt feelings” — it may be a warning, as a potential attacker works themselves into the state for violence. This process is often seen in violent adult offenders, who will commonly preface physical assault, rape, or murder with a stream of derogatory language and epithets.
These are the mechanics behind a child’s intense reaction to what seems like mere name-calling — but which may preface or even carry literally life-threatening menace.
But, there is a cost on the other side of the equation as well…
Don’t bully the bullies:
Almost as important as noticing and stopping name-calling, it is important that we not engage that same process — that we don’t “bully-label the bully”. Otherwise, we risk turning our “anti-bully” campaign into a license for name-calling to exclude others from the social fold. The net outcome isn’t any more useful because the social order remains fractured, and tensions remain in place along similar lines.
More self-destructively, labeling people bullies (or “terrorists”) blinds us by over-simplifying complicated social interactions and processes. Not only are those labels lacking useful meaning, they are a mental short-cut to avoid thinking (or learning) about people, cultures, and issues. In many cases, such labeling helps us avoid noticing our own responsibility to the broader social order. In most social issues, labeling impedes understanding. So, it is as important for our own mental integrity as for our moral integrity that we stop name calling — including our name calling the name-callers.
Finally, more dehumanizing processes and more social division are not likely to help build strong, cohesive social structures — where we find peaceful or kind interactions.
What Can I Do?
As with everything else, start by checking your own behaviors and language.
What you are actually modeling for your children?
Do you use labels to morally exclude others — be they individuals or groups?
How sure are you about your answers to those questions?
Stop name calling — even “bullies”.
How healthy is your “stand up” when others use labeling and name-calling — particularly when your children are present?
You may be able to improve what you are modeling …
Understanding is protective: Explain to children that labeling makes people seem unworthy of our ideals for how to treat human beings. Explain that if a person’s right to fair treatment can be erased by name-calling, that’s not good for any of us.
Playing an imagination game to activate empathy will make your child less likely to do it. And, for children subjected to name-calling, understanding the mechanics behind the powerful and frightening emotions involved usually reduces their intensity.
Teach children that a sense of humor is like anti-label magic. Having a sense of humor, and using it to casually dismiss the earliest prods of name-calling may deny the would-be bully their social goal — and nip the situation in the bud.
Another strategy for children to stop name calling is to directly inquire of the name-caller about their goals and needs — what they want to achieve through the name-calling. This strategy is risky, and should be done without an audience for the bullying party to play to.
Help your child to consistently view behavior as separate from person: Human beings all have the same needs (and value as people); it is our strategies for trying to meet those needs that are variable in how well they work, and fit into society.
This is the opposite of mentally-lazy labeling, and helps us to stay focused in the present — and on the mechanics involved. This thinking makes it easier to remain calm and less emotional.
If name-calling seems to become persistent or pervasive — or if it escalates severely — it may be the harbinger of greater problems, and therefore a need for adult intervention.