This blog isn’t a place where I talk about politics. And that’s not what I want to talk about today.
I want to talk about the language we use and the message it sends.
Specifically, I want to talk about the use of the word “prank” to describe what presidential candidate Mitt Romney is accused of doing to a classmate at his prep school years ago. The news, splashed all over the Washington Post website today and spread far and wide online, quotes several of Romney’s former classmates in describing an alleged attack on a student who was different.
Note the use of the words “prank” and “prankster.”
According to the story, the kid who was victimized had returned from spring break with his hair dyed blond and hanging over one eye. The sources claim that Romney said, “He can’t look like that. That’s wrong. Just look at him!” Later, the sources say, Romney took a pair of scissors and led a gang of kids to find the boy with the blond hair, then held him down and cut his hair while he screamed for help.
Romney said in an interview today he doesn’t remember that incident. I wasn’t there, and I don’t know if that’s true, if it ever happened, or if the story will have an impact on Romney’s campaign.
What I do know is this: The act described in that news report is not a prank.
I’ve played pranks. I’m the person who put the sign on the copy machine at school one April Fools Day a few years back, announcing that it had been reprogrammed to be voice-activated and that copies should be made with a loud, clear request: “20 COPIES, PLEASE, DOUBLED SIDED!” Would-be copiers were advised to try again, more loudly, if it didn’t work the first time, and not to forget the “please,” as the machine would not function without it. The secretaries in the office were laughing all day.
The word prank implies fun. It implies innocent and harmless. It implies that nobody gets hurt. We desperately need to stop using that word to describe acts of cruelty that target vulnerable kids. Doing so excuses the inexcusable and offers our kids of today a license to bully without repercussions.
Nobody wants to be a bully. Ask any kid, “Is it okay to be a bully? Do you like people who are mean?” They’ll say no. But pranks…ah, pranks are another story. And if the line between the two is all hazy and gray – even when the adults talk about it, even when the Washington Post writes about it – well, maybe shoving the short kid into a locker or targeting that guy with the weird hair is okay.
It’s only a prank, after all.
No. It’s not.
Choose a better word. Cruelty. bullying, and assault are a few that come to mind. But please stop calling it a prank. Continuing to do so is irresponsible and dangerous. And whatever our politics are, we owe our kids better than that.