Thursday, January 7, 2010
Texts, Postings Bring Backlash Against Mean-Speak
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?"
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.