Let me start by saying that this is not a political piece. I am not going to be taking sides, putting down one side over the other, doing a compare and contrast exercise of all the evils (real or otherwise) the two main candidates for the position of leader of the ‘free world’ demonstrated. I am neither a Democrat nor a Republican, I am not even a US citizen (and another reason – I write a blog on improving speech)!
I am friendly both with people who voted for and against the president elect. I even know two people who (claim!) they crossed their usual party line in opposite directions to vote for the other side (one due to dislike of a candidate’s behavior and one due to a candidates perceived stance on the Middle East). I am not judging anyone!
Nor would I claim to be the most erudite writer and many other commentators with superior resumes have written better critiques than I could aspire to. But there is one particular issue that needs to be addressed and in some ways it was one of the motivations behind the creation of this website.
The tone of this current cycle of US presidential elections has, as everyone knows, been … how shall we describe it? Maybe – “in the gutter”. I am not suggesting that other elections have been all compliments and positivity. It is not uncommon in politics that when someone appears to be saying something pleasant, they are at the same time stabbing someone in the back.
In fact, if we were to look for the positives, what this cycle has done is made it more blatant. The negativity, the chauvinism, the mud-slinging is no longer subtle, it is in your face and because of that more people have woken up to how inappropriate it is.
When each rival is given a negative moniker that in one word annihilates them, when indiscriminate shots of under 140 characters are fired right, left and center, when lying is elevated to an art form, when whole sections of society are labelled negatively because of their political choices, and when the backlash against political correctness reaches a level that gives real racists a strong voice, maybe then we wake up to the fact that for a long time now there has been a steady deterioration in the way we as a society communicates, comments and tweets!
What Is So Wrong About Lashon Hara?
In a recent post we discussed that Lashon Hara includes two sub-headings, negative speech where a derogatory statement is made about someone even where no physical, emotional or financial damage will be caused and harmful speech which causes damage or pain, even when the statement is not, in itself, derogatory.
The question has to be asked. I can understand why harmful speech is bad. If I cause someone a financial loss, if I cause them physical damage, if I hurt their feelings, I have affected another human being in a negative way. If I can get why punching someone in the face is bad, I can understand why causing damage with my mouth would be bad too.
But what is wrong with negative speech when no damage is caused. What is wrong with me and my friend sitting down together and putting down another person when we both know that we will not ever share these comments with anyone else?
Rabeinu Yonah (R’ Yonah of Gerona – d. 1264) in his famous work Shaarei Teshuva (Gates of Repentance) gives us the answer.
“There are two negative aspects to the one who speaks Lashon Hara. Firstly the damage and embarrassment that he causes to his friend and secondly his very choosing to portray his friend as guilty and wicked and rejoicing over his misfortune”1
When a person says something negative about someone else, he will sometimes cause them pain and damage. But he will always destroy himself. He chose to be happy over someone else’s misfortune?! He danced at someone else’s downfall?! How lowly can you get?
Whenever we speak badly, the very first person we damage is ourselves. We had a choice. We could either have seen the person in a good light, to find the positives, polish them and present them to the world in all their glory and some of that light will shine on us too or we could have jumped into the sewer soiling ourselves as we attempt to soil our colleague at the same time.
Rabeinu Yonah himself says it best:
“The flies always go and rest on the dirty places”2
We will often walk along and see excrement left by a dog on the sidewalk and one thing that can be guaranteed is that it will be covered by flies! When we go and dig in the dirt we will get dirty! Would it not be better to be like a bee who spends its life seeking out and choosing the best smelling quality pollen to take home and make into something even sweeter?
So let’s ask ourselves the following questions:
Do we not want to be great again? Do we not want to reach a level where we really care about another human being to the extent that we would never even consider speaking or writing negatively about them? Don’t we want to achieve exalted heights that aren’t sullied by constantly digging up the dirt on others?
Don’t we want to be so dignified that such things are beneath us? Don’t we want people to gravitate towards and hang out with us, not because we have a good juicy story to tell about someone else or a clever destructive riposte, but because they know that we really care about them, will always judge them favorably and will never ever share their secrets or embarrassing stories with anyone?
Isn’t that how great we really want to be?
It’s time for an Inauguration. Let’s Make Ourselves Great Again!
לע’נ הרב יוסף אליהו בן הרב מנחם יעקב
1. ש”ת שער ג’, רטז
2. ש”ת שער ג’, ריז