Internet Meme Demolition Derby: Condescending Barbarian Edition

“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never harm me”

English children’s rhyme

Today’s meme was brought to our attention by the founder of Free Thought Blogs and awesome blogger at Dispatches from the Culture Wars, Ed Brayton. It’s both problematic and complicated despite its simple nature. Pictured below is a vaguely Viking looking barbarian dude in a cool winged helmet. At first I thought it was one of the guys from The History Channel’s hit series Vikings, which I’ve never seen but looks like Game of Thrones without the nude scenes. But in fact icondescending vikingt is a really nifty digital illustration and I’m sure the meme authors gave no credit to the artist so I will here. Great job Silvia Fusetti!

I offended you?

What does it feel like to be so weak that mere words hurt you?



Allow me to be generous at first. I can completely understand the impulse to create or share a meme like this. The eminently useful Google Image Search will reveal it being deployed by a variety of commentators, from a British Christian blogger defending the right of preachers to call LGBTQ folks “abominations” just like the good book says, to sharing Pinterest space with a former IMDD subject, to belittling “social justice warriors” on Tumblr. It’s a versatile meme and it certainly appears to scratch an itch in a variety of internet situations.

The problem is, that itch might be a serious condition, that being that you might be an asshole and are using semantic games to excuse your crappy behavior.

We’ve all likely heard the nursery rhyme that leads off this piece.

“Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never harm me”

Now this pre-internet meme has stuck around for centuries and has been the preferred response to verbal bullying by children for at least my entire lifetime or more. I think we here at Grounded Parents mostly agree that the Sticks and Stones approach to dealing with bullying and hurtful language is insufficient at best, seeing as it relies on the target of that language to be responsible for the level of harm done, when it should be the responsibility of the bully to not be hurtful.  But at least S&S can be seen as an affirmative mantra, a way for someone on the wrong side of a problematic verbal exchange to exercise self care, at least in the short term.

Our Condescending Barbarian on the other hand has flipped those tables completely around. Condescending Barbarian is completely on the side of the verbal abuser. The person who deploys this meme probably isn’t interested in the well being of the person claiming to be hurt by something they said, they are more interested in vindicating their own choice of words and denigrating  those who object. In a pretty crappy way too. Look at the way this meme deploys a combination of visual and language cues to belittle the target. Look how disappointed Condescending Barbarian is in your weakness. If you let mere words hurt you, then how much use are you going to be against the IMPENDING INVASION OF MARAUDING ORCS!!! The use of the fantasy warrior in this case isn’t coincidental. It was those internet denizens who rage against the scourge of “political correctness” who first envisioned themselves in a battle against irrational “social justice warriors”.

This meme, by centering its argument around offense, completely leaves out of consideration the harm words can do. Offense is subjective, it can be dismissed as a mushy headed, emotional (often read as feminizing) reaction. Or it’s the province of wacky irrational religious zealots who shoot cartoonists. Reasonable, logical (read cis, white, male, hetero) people can use whatever language they want on the Internet without succumbing to weakness, why can’t everybody else? Hopefully regular GP readers can see the flaw in that particular logic.

As I’ve said here at GP before, the Internet need not be Sparta. We shouldn’t have to wade through muck every time we open our twitter client. We should be able to respond to cruel and abusive language without being seen as weak. Nor is it reasonable to suppose that mere words are somehow powerless. Words are fucking powerful. In fact people who spout nonsense like this meme are often well fucking aware of how powerful words can be because they so often choose to use words that denigrate and belittle others because doing so makes them feel powerful.

To finish I would like to quote Ed Brayton’s response because I could go on and on but he sums it up perfectly.

I get so tired of this claim. How about telling a child who is constantly being told that they’re worthless that they’re just being weak by letting “mere words” hurt them? Or a rape victim that she’s just being weak when someone tells them it’s their fault? Or a gay person that they’re a weakling for letting it bother them when people scream “faggot” at them as they walk down the street.

This is just self-congratulatory bullshit, setting yourself above others by claiming to be so “strong” that you just laugh off “mere words,” and insulting those “weaklings” who are so often beaten down by cruelty and bigotry expressed through “mere words.” Fuck that noise. Get some fucking compassion and stop demeaning those who have already taken more than enough abuse.


Featured Image Credit: BlackRogueDreams at, shared under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Louis Doench

Lou Doench is a 52 year old father of three. Twelve years ago he married the coolest woman in the world and gave up the lucrative career of being a photography student to become a stay at home husband and Dad, or SAHD. An atheist geek, or a geeky atheist if you prefer, Lou likes reading, photography, video gaming, disc golf, baseball and Dr. Who. He has been playing Dungeons and Dragons since 1976. Born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio. He is also an excellent home cook, not that his children would know because they only eat Mac & Cheese. Follow Lou on Twitter @blotzphoto or check out his photography at

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  1. On a related note, helpful tip: if you are a guidance counselor, and you are looking at a sobbing 11 y/o who has just told you that she’s constantly bullied and is having suicidal thoughts, and said child has just run out of her gym class and hidden behind a vending machine in the hallway because she was being hit, kicked, and screamed at by half a dozen bigger boys, the correct response IS NOT to tell her how she should “just ignore them” because she “shouldn’t care what they think,” and then do absolutely nothing else. This response WILL NOT HELP. It will, in fact, MAKE MATTERS WORSE. DO NOT DO IT.

  2. Meh, the problem with this is, when you’re offended by that argument, you have a right to be offended, but you don’t have a right not to be offended.

    TBH, this is why I don’t like social justice bloggers. They use the same tone arguments that privileged white conservatives use whenever the rest of us get ‘uppity’.

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