Mr. Toad: Insults, Jokes, and Words of Power

Lynne Murray says:

I like to read urban paranormal novels in part because the heroines demonstrate their power in a very literal way. The magic used in these stories, which causes visible effects, is sometimes  accompanied by fictional “power words.” This post is about real-life power words.

I can’t write from first-hand experience about wounds inflicted by bullies. I don’t have the deep wounds of those who were literally battered and verbally attacked on a daily basis, often under the eyes of uncaring adults.

However, I do remember the day I stopped doing yoga in front of people because I was attacked by someone I trusted and thought of as a friend. The parallel sprang into focus when I ran across a Facebook post from Lauri Owen attributed to Don Miguel Ruiz:

People think that a spell sounds something like “Abracadabra.” Mexican shaman Don Miguel Ruiz proposes that real magic spells sound more like “nice girl; too bad she is Black”; “I believe in you”; “you are worthless”‘ “I love you”; and “why can’t you be more like your brother/sister.”

Lauri found the quote at this Facebook link.

I’ll call my old friend Mr. Toad, after the character in Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Not that he looked like a toad, exactly, though he was short and stocky and not particularly handsome. His incorrigible good humor and headstrong, optimistic manner reminded me of Mr. Toad. We became friends because both of us used jokes to cope and refused to let people ignore us.

I got to know Mr. Toad when we were both in our 20s and active in the Buddhist lay organization. He probably joined the group because there were so many friendly young women, although he soon learned that none of us viewed him as attractive, and many of us were celibate–not as a lifetime commitment so much as an effort to change past patterns of rotten relationships. Mr. Toad openly vented his frustration with humor, and we got to be friends because both of us were naturally irreverent even as we faithfully practiced a rather labor-intensive religion.

He smashed my yoga efforts during a session of “look what I can do.” I was 24 and my friends in high school had been primarily books. I didn’t know about the pack mentality of young men measuring themselves physically against one another and jostling for status. If I had, I wouldn’t have tried to join in the game. I realize now that no other women were present, but in 1972 the feminist movement was distant thunder on the horizon of my world and I didn’t think anything of it. I felt safe with these guys and we were in the Buddhist community center for chrissakes during a rare moment of leisure.

One of the higher-ranking guys was the clear frontrunner when he demonstrated a knee bend on one leg with the other leg held out in front of him. I could only do two unusual physical things: the first was horseback riding, but with no horses available, I went with the second–yoga. I’d studied yoga from books and I could do a shoulder stand.

When I demonstrated, Mr. Toad called out, “Look at the size of it.”

He was referring to my ass. I had collected a bouquet of similarly cruel body critical remarks over the years but I had shrugged them off because they had never come from someone I trusted in a group where I felt accepted and valued. My wit, sharp enough to draw blood, usually protected me, although on that day it failed me.

Mr. Toad aimed to let me know that I was neither one of the boys nor an impressive sex object. He wanted to get points with the guys for pointing all this out cleverly. His role was court jester among the other men, and their acceptance of himi was conditional. He had no college degree in a nest of recent college grads and perpetual students. He worked a blue collar job and belonged to a union (“Local ___, bitch” he jokingly stated when I asked).

I never demonstrated anything physical in front of a group after that. I also stepped back from my friendship with Mr. Toad.

After experiencing how a pointed, uncensored comment from a friend with a wit as well-honed as mine could undermine my confidence permanently, I began to think more carefully about how I used my own wit. It took me some years to realize that he was a sniper. His damaging words were occasional, like a string of poison pearls strung out over the decades that I knew him.

When I ran into him at social functions over the years, I saw more clearly how his jokes were invariably ugly putdowns of women, sometimes mutual friends. Sniping insults were his primary way of relating to people. The more critically I examined his barbs, the more listening to him felt like getting kicked in the stomach.

Many people told him he was disgusting, but he was used to that. Occasionally he would joke about himself, but always including some ego boosting: for example, he quipped that he and his second wife had so many children because they could never figure out how contraception worked. He then described some of the things they did that could not result in conception. Yes, ick.  And yes, an eventual divorce resulted.

The last time we met was when a mutual friend dragged him over to my apartment the week after my husband died. I’d been away from the Buddhist lay organization for years, but people I used to know came out of the woodwork to pay their respects. Mr. Toad showed up with a mutual friend. They didn’t stay long. But as they were leaving, Mr. Toad made a joke so jaw-droppingly hostile and sexist that I couldn’t believe even he would say it, let alone to a grieving widow.

(If you (like me) are consumed with unwise curiosity about all things verbal and must know the reality behind even the most offensive joke, search for “Why do women have legs?” Like many cruel things, it’s alive and well on the net.)

Steven Brust opened up an interesting discussion on hurtful jokes that prompted 149 comments, many quite insightful. Here’s the first part of his conclusion:

There are those with an attitude that goes something like this: “It was just a joke. If you can’t take a joke, you need to lighten up.” The kindest thing one can say about this attitude is that it is over-simplified; we don’t all respond the same way to the same kind of pain, and your coping method might be exactly what makes it impossible for me to cope. More typically, someone with that attitude needs to be sequestered from other human beings so he won’t do any more harm.

When in doubt, I err on the side of caution, because the damage to someone who is sensitive about whatever one is laughing at is more significant than the benefit for someone it helps, at any given time (you can tell the joke later when there’s no one around it bothers). But usually, one doesn’t know one has crossed the line until someone reacts badly, and then one is, first, puzzled, then ashamed, then (sometimes) angry or determined to justify one’s self. It’s ugly as hell.

Oddly enough, once my eyes were open, it turned out to be even more painful on occasions when I played the joker–cutting with the scalpel of wit, inflicting harm and seeing the result. Once you recognize that, you don’t want to revisit it. You have a choice–you can actually use the power of words to make people feel better about themselves, or you can use that power to make them feel worse. Either way, those feelings are forever.

2 thoughts on “Mr. Toad: Insults, Jokes, and Words of Power

  1. I don’t disagree with anything in this post. However, at the risk of sounding like I’m supporting bullying, which I am most emphatically not, I want to point out that for some people, especially young ones (think junior high school), the power to be nasty is the only power they think they have, and they use it because they hope it will protect them from others’ physical and verbal abuse.

    I was one of those young people: a young porcupine, cousin, perhaps, to Mr. Toad. I exhibited a quick and nasty “wit” through most of high school, until one day a teacher I respected gently pointed out to me that my verbals jabs were truly hurting people, and that my peers might be kinder to me if I didn’t slice them up. I hadn’t known. I didn’t intend to hurt people, I wanted only to head off the attacks I felt sure were coming. The teacher’s words made me look at what I was doing. Slowly, over a period of about a year, I abandoned my protective speech, and discovered that I didn’t need it, that there were other ways to protect oneself; as, for instance, making new friends.

  2. Lizzy L, to quote Groucho, I resemble your remark!

    Verbal martial arts is a useful skill and one way to protect oneself is a proactive attack. As a fat kid I don’t remember being bullied but I do remember being coached by my father, who had also grown up fat, on some things to say when attacked (e.g., “I may have fat on my body but you carry yours between your ears”).

    My journey to verbal disarmament was similar to yours but took longer. Sadly and very infrequently when protecting myself or others, the old impulses and reflexes surface and I say something so stunningly offensive or personally aimed that I can’t believe it came out of my mouth–and yet, the person attacking me slinks away and that was the desired result. I never do this unless someone is trying to hurt me or mine, and if I were a more evolved person perhaps I would no longer do it at all. It’s kind of like someone trying to bully John Hurt in Alien right before the baby alien rips its way out of his chest–oops, chose the wrong person to pick on.

    I’m not proud to hit below the belt and I would be embarrassed to be quoted because the knife fight kind of verbal defense is usually way lower in quality than polished wit. So I try to reserve the verbal dueling matches in the fictional realm where no living humans can be harmed in the telling of the tale.

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