Thursday, January 7, 2010

Texts, Postings Bring Backlash Against Mean-Speak

Teens "sexting" nude photos. Threads of blog comments filled with nasty insults. Facebook posts cutting others to the quick. There's more vile and hurtful stuff circulating, with greater access, than ever before.

I was delighted to see an excellent article in the Wall Street Journal today against gossip.  Jews call it "lushon ha ra," literally in Hebrew "evil language," but really, speaking negatively about people, even if true.  ("motzi shem ra" is a term for slander, ie talk that's not true.) Educators, parents and pastors are popularizing three questions to consider before speaking--"Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?"

Columnist Jeffrey Zaslow described the backlash against verbal cruelty that's now made easy by texting and the internet--and the long-term consequences of mean messages when they enter the cloudy googles-sphere where posts and pokes never die.  He tells of advocacy groups, mentioning, that offers a free-to-download handbook coauthored by Aish ha Torah's Irwin Katsoff, endorsed by Joe Lieberman, John McCain, John Kerry, Charles Schumer and even Tom Cruise and Goldie Hawn. Movingly, Zaslow described a letter from a reader whose catty remarks to her mom about a nerdy date brought the mom's sage reply: "...this boy you find ugly and weird is some mother's pride and joy....when he came home, she saw his face, she knew someone hurt him, and it broke her heart..."  The reader, who learned her lesson, posted in her dorm room, "Treat everyone the way your mother would want everyone to treat you."

Also today, coincidentally, my fave talk show host covered a new law in France that would make spousal lash-outs a crime.  Even cohabitants could call the cops for "psychological violence" which, according Britain's "Daily Mail," encompasses "every kind of insult including repeated rude remarks about a partner's appearance, false allegations of infidelity and threats of physical violence."  While verbal abuse can certainly demoralize a weaker partner, enforcing civility on a he-said, she-said spat is likely too great a burden for overtaxed police.

Still, it shows that concern for the outcomes of verbal interchange is escalating.

Here in America, by adding laws about "hate speech," we've already increased sensitivity about saying nearly everything about a person--except gossip about behavior.  A growing number of groups representing various statuses and characteristics is demanding respect.  "A fat American no longer owns their (sic) own body, it (sic) is a commodity to be ridiculed, marginalized, a cost to be cut," laments the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. "An American citizen is more than a BMI!"

Words--insulting, hateful or not--are constitutionally no concern of secular law, per the First Amendment:  "Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech..."  But they're the subject of plentiful Jewish laws, as famously detailed by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan, known as the Chofetz Chaim. Just today, my teacher, Rabbi Ephraim Schwartz, was describing how commandments on "Lushon ha ra" would in many circumstances bar giving a poor recommendation to an unworthy student, though the inquirer would likely get the message when his request was declined.

The power of speech was harnessed close to home, as well. When a classmate in my daughter's Jewish high school class sadly developed cancer, the students pledged to banish their personal lushon ha ra, to improve the world in the merit of their friend.

It's not just the world, or the blogosphere, or the text-mail ether that gets uplifted when "kind-true-necessary" questions result in restraint.  Clearly, the greatest benefit is to those who become more aware of their own thought processes; more cognizant of possible outcomes and consequences.  We Jews are taught that words are more than means of communication; they're the very stuff from which God formed the world.  God could have gone "zap," and everything would have appeared.  But God said "let there be..." and only after the words came the reality.

Words are also what separates man from animal, what makes us, to large extent, in God's image.  God created with words; we do, too.  I sometimes wonder what, say, a pet dog, thinks of a master who sits at a computer for hours on end, tapping on a plastic box, or staring at a Kindle or newspaper.  The dog has no concept of reading, of conveying truths, images, facts via the intangibles of words.  Similarly, I consider we humans to be clueless about the reality of God--we observe the physical world, occasionally glimpse Providence in retrospect, but can't grasp the intangible, non-material existence that lies beyond.

We connect to God's creativity via words, which makes gossip and everything we speak far more weighty than the ease and brevity with which it's said.

Zaslow in his WSJ piece tries to be journalistic by quoting critics of "kind, true, necessary," saying such filters "may be naive and limiting," and might even be a tool to "help" workers conform to a norm. Weber State University professor Susan Hafen thinks "it would be a boring world if we always had to tiptoe around being kind. For one thing, we wouldn't be able to tell any jokes." Ha ha.

Does negativity make life more interesting? There's no drama without a conflict, but conflict doesn't have to center on dissing.  And who wants a real life of drama? Even the couple who regularly fights and then has a heavenly reuniting makes an impact on its children.  There's one supplementary question to the basic three I find pivotal:  "will it improve on the silence?"

And that, perhaps is the entire goal of the anti-gossip crusade--improving the quality of discourse, the quality of relationships, and the quality of our internal debates.


  1. "We connect to God's creativity via words, which makes gossip and everything we speak far more weighty than the ease and brevity with which it's said."

    Excellent. James said "We bless God and curse man with the same tongue. These things shouldn't be."

    I listened to your favorite talk show host yesterday, too. He is one of the few worth listening to.

  2. We were shopping in Costco a couple of weeks ago. As we were walking by a sample table, the gal working the table was handing out a morsel to a toddler and spoke, "Kids are so cute, until they get to be that age," as she pointed to my ten-year-old. Unfortunately, the look on my daughter's face told me she got it. It was a painful opportunity to talk about forgiveness and the power of words.