Real Life Words, Like Feathers


There is a fantastic Jewish folktale, originating from Poland, called ‘Words Like Feathers’. It tells the tale of three extremely talkative women who inaccurately identify a boy as a thief. In no time at all, word spreads until the entire village thinks of the innocent boy as a criminal. It takes the village Rabbi to show the women that words can cause widespread damage, impossible to undo.

As an example, he instructs the women to empty the feathers from a pillow. As the wind takes the feathers in every direction, he instructs them to find each one and put it back.

An impossible task, just as it is impossible to ‘un-speak’ damaging words once they’ve been spoken and accepted as true.

This story has a poignant lesson about the power of words and the importance of using words consciously, with care and accuracy.

We added this story to Storyvalues to support bullying prevention initiatives in schools. It is a very popular story. Personally, I think the attention being placed on the problem of bullying at school is long overdue. The idea that bullying is somehow acceptable is finally giving way to a burgeoning consciousness of the long-term negative effects of cruel, destructive behavior.

The question I have is, how can we expect to change bullying behavior at school if that very same behavior seems is acceptable within adult society?

In the past few months alone we’ve seen many instances in the media wherein divisive and inflammatory words have been consciously used by radio and TV talk show hosts, religious leaders and politicians. These highly publicized outbursts invariably involve labeling and targeting certain segments of society: “black”, “white”, “gay”, “liberal”, etc., detailing exactly what it is that sets these groups apart from what otherwise would be “acceptable”.

Is this not a form of bullying? Or does this fall under the vast heading, “freedom of speech”? Is it somehow different when a prominent talk radio host calls an individual a “slut” than when a grade 7 student does the same?

Political and corporate leaders regularly speak ‘half-truths’ about ideological opponents, knowing that the comments will gain a foothold in the public consciousness once they are broadcast or appear in print. How is this different than a school bully spreading a rumour about another student through social media?

One might say that, like bullying in school, this type of thing has ‘always been a part’ of the social landscape, as if that would make the practice somehow ‘acceptable’.

What is different is that now our messages are broadcast much more efficiently. The ‘feathers’ now enter an extremely efficient and powerful windstorm , traveling much farther and wider than ever before through multiple forms of media, creating an echo chamber that magnifies the message and engulfs anyone who is in the range of a TV, radio or computer.

That’s pretty much everyone at this point, including kids, whom we claim we’d like to protect from this kind of behavior.

What are they learning from all of this?

– Matthew Giffin

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