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First published: Pevensey Bay Journal, edition 29, available in local newsagents
illustration credit: St. Nicolas church, Pevensey Cobbybrook.

Children can be cruel little things, mocking and sniggering, which makes playgrounds often nightmarish places.

I’ve no idea what the equivalent might be now, but back in the last century parents would often tell their children, if they were on the receiving end of such stuff, to respond along the lines of ‘sticks and bones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me’. In other words, ‘you can say what you like, but it won’t get to me’. Did it ever work? Was it ever actually true?

And what about now – given the all-pervasive nature of social media? If people say unpleasant things to (or about) us – does it hurt? When Shylock asks ‘if you prick us, do we not bleed?’, he was speaking for the whole of humanity – whoever we are, we can feel pain. And there’s no doubt that words can wound. Not always, of course – it depends who utters them (it’s easier to be hurt by someone you love than by someone you loathe).

But words do matter – because they express feelings. And as social creatures, we like to be liked. So if others are unpleasant to us, it can threaten our sense of self-worth.

Words can (and do) inflame. They can distort and simplify – and manipulate the gullible and vulnerable. Slogans become substitutes for thinking – and the serious business of politics gets reduced to the chanting of a mob.

When politicians use words to exaggerate (or lie), it erodes the fabric of society. If we can’t rely on others telling the truth, our grip on the world becomes that bit more tenuous. Which is why political propaganda (whether in print or online) is so dangerous – and so successful.

W. B. Yeats famously urged us to ‘tread softly because you tread on my dreams’. And we really do need to treat one another gently. Which means we need to mind our language – and demand that those in the media and political office do the same.

Otherwise the public sphere ends up as the preserve of whoever can shout loudest – and cruellest. And that’s playground behaviour.

The work of Father Tony Windross as a writer and author is marked. The Thoughtful Guide to Faith (2003) received interesting reviews. John Shelby “Jack” Spong, a retired American bishop of the Episcopal Church and a liberal Christian theologian, said this book will escape the walls of the church and be debated everywhere.