It's funny how shifts in the tiniest little slivers of culture can change the world.

When I was a little boy, for instance, other kids would from time to time say mean things to me or make fun of me. This would make me feel bad. One time, the notorious Robbie Campbell, who lived a couple of houses to the east of 7224 96B Avenue (see, I still remember the address like it was my own name) which in 1962 was on the outskirts of Edmonton, even conked me on the head with a chunk of 2 x 4.

These were the instructions I received from my parents:

  1. As per the taunting, Mom's instructions were to just remember to reply—repetitively—"sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me."

  2. Regarding young master Campbell and the 2 x 4, Dad's instructions were: "Next time he tries that, punch him in the nose."

These were quite straightforward. The mantra that mother repeated was, I expect, inherited from her mother etc. and I found it useful. In late 20th-century terms it translates simply into "I am too tough and secure psychologically to succumb to your nasty little attempts to enhance your social position at my emotional expense. Give it up you loser—your words cannot hurt me and I won't be your victim."

Seemed sensible enough, but it doesn't seem to translate at all in the 21st century.

I thought of this the other day when I was reading about how hurt some people feel when reading online comments made in response to news stories or blogs. We are all courageous, of course, when we can wear a mask, ring someone's emotional doorbell, and run away. Many cyber comments are well beyond the pale and certainly wouldn't have been made back in the day when you had to look the object of your critique in the eye human-to human-like and, in the case of Robbie Campbell (whose dad was from Flin Flon), run the risk of getting clobbered by a 2 x 4 in response.

Me? I learned a few years ago to just not read those comments because they are stupid and made me angry. I don't like stupid and I don't like being angry and I figured that's what they were intended to do—make me angry and stupid, that is. I defaulted to mother's advice, and the names will never hurt me because I won't be their victim. In the 21st century, however, the more popular response seems to be to refer to speech that hurts feelings as "hate speech," define oneself as a "victim" incapable of avoiding it and demand some form of intervention or even restitution. Maybe I get to feel the way I do because my life has been more privileged than others'. I can accept that—to a point. But while mother's "names will never hurt me" advice was simplistic, it was a heckuva lot more helpful than "I am a victim" in defining one's approach to life.

As for Dad's advice, it was a bit more "Kid, you're going to have to fight some of your own fights in this life and until you stand up for yourself people will keep pushing you around."

True, of course. Also true, as it turned out, that Robbie could punch back.