I recently saw a TED talk by Monica Lewinsky–yes, that Monica Lewinsky1–that I found really important and inspiring. She talks about cyberbullying and the “culture of humiliation”, and how the global response to the scandal in which she was involved made her the sort of “patient zero” of this phenomenon. What I find inspiring is her courage in forgiving herself for a mistake that was rubbed in the entire world’s face, reclaiming her narrative, and then going on to speak up for the victims of similar shaming campaigns and try to turn the world into a more compassionate and forgiving place. It’s a worthwhile 20 minutes:
Why am I talking about Monica Lewinsky and cyberbullying on a blog about Judaism?
There is a mitzvah in our tradition called “shmirat halashon“, “guarding the tongue”. It is a prohibition against speaking negatively about and/or to other people. There are several categories of negative speech, including hona’at devarim, speech that is directly harmful or abusive to the person to whom you are speaking; hotza’at shem ra, libeling; and the most well-known, lashon hara, gossiping or speaking negatively about people behind their backs.
Much as these things seem self-evident as part of being a decent person, it is actually very hard. We have a drive to speak negatively about others, for a whole variety of reasons, and especially that last one–speaking about people behind their backs. It can be hard to draw the line between negative speech that is necessary and negative speech that just feels good. For example, if someone has wronged you and you feel hurt, it’s okay to talk about it with someone you trust if you need to get it off your chest and get some support, but it’s not okay to go on and tell everyone you know just for the sake of feeling self-righteous. Because these boundaries are a little blurry, it is an often misunderstood and even maligned mitzvah, especially compared to “big” mitzvot like keeping kosher and Shabbat. As a kid, I remember it being used against me by other kids as an attempt to shut me down, and not always in a justified context. Unfortunately, even in ultra-Orthodox communities, this mitzvah can be under-practiced and under-appreciated… and also sometimes misused to excuse covering up cases where speaking up is the proper thing to do, such as cases of abuse. Especially in communities that are so careful about things like women’s modesty and holding to the highest standard of kashrut, it is tragic when shmirat halashon is not properly observed. The effects of misusing speech are devastating.
King Solomon writes in Proverbs: “Life and death are in the power of the tongue”. In the Talmud, the Sages say, “One who embarrasses his fellow in public–it is as though he has spilled blood.” Speech is what elevates humans above animals. It is what allows us to share our ideas, building off of each other to create, develop and advance in science, technology and philosophy. It is what allows us to share our emotions and thoughts, making it possible to build relationships, improve ourselves and others, support others, and heal each other. Words change the way people think, the way they feel, the way they see the world. Speech is a gift that has immense power. And like everything that has immense power, that power can be very constructive… and also very destructive. And in this day and age, when we are so connected and our words and images can be spread globally in the blink of an eye, we have to be especially careful about what we say. We often have no idea what effect our words could have.
The mitzvah of shmirat halashon is not only to avoid speaking negatively, but also to avoid listening to negative speech. Listening to and internalizing speech is what gives it its power, even if we don’t actively spread the negativity. Simply allowing it into our minds and souls contributes to its damage. Simply hearing something negative about another person will change the way you think about him or her, even if you’re not sure you believe what you heard.
I think that at a deeper level, the problem of negative speech stems from difficulty with another concept that is not a mitzvah but a middah (positive character trait/ethic) that we are encouraged to develop: judging others favorably (dan l’kaf zchut). Judging people favorably does not mean excusing their behavior or turning a blind eye to their negative traits. It means giving the benefit of the doubt and assuming the best–because there is always so much we don’t know about the situation or the person–and focusing on the good aspects of that person or group.
When we truly judge everyone favorably, there is simply nothing negative to say.
I’ll give you an example that I found especially distressing. A couple years ago, there were a number of cases of parents accidentally leaving their babies or young children in a hot car, that ended in tragedy. Facebook was full of awful comments, blaming the parents, calling for severe punishment of these “criminals”. This really upset me, because in most cases like these, the parents are actually completely responsible and loving parents who had one fateful moment of absentmindedness with terrible consequences. Here is an excellent article on the topic, which I think anyone who has an opinion on this should read; but I warn you, it is an emotionally difficult read, especially as a parent.
We all make mistakes. I cannot imagine the agony those parents must have been experiencing. As a parent, my heart clenches and I get sick to my stomach just thinking about it. They need support in their grief and guilt, not people making nasty comments, rubbing their mistake in their faces, and calling for punishment. When I tried pointing out to people that these parents deserved our support and empathy and not our criticism, the responses were… not encouraging. I wrote the following in my journal:
It scares and saddens me that I live in a world where people’s automatic defense mechanism in these cases is to be cruel, angry, and to punish, rather than to be kind, compassionate, and try to help. It makes me wonder about our justice system, where our response to wrongdoing is so focused on punishment instead of reeducation and rehabilitation.
And it angers me that when I show compassion for parents like these, I get responses like “Stop your crocodile tears, you probably agree with those teenagers who think the Boston Marathon bomber was ‘too pretty to have committed a crime’. Your false compassion cheapens the life of a child who died a horrific death.”
Because making a tragic mistake as a parent is apparently morally equivalent to committing premeditated murder out of senseless hatred. And apparently, it is impossible to have compassion both for the parent and for the child.
I just haven’t been able to stop thinking–and occasionally crying–about this.
Social media intensifies the phenomenon of negative speech and magnifies its ugliness. And I don’t just mean the kind of high-profile “shaming campaigns” and cyberbullying Ms. Lewinsky is talking about. Every time we share an article, a status, or a spoken remark that ridicules someone, every time we make a disparaging comment or use disrespectful or extreme language to describe an individual or a group (excluding, of course, individuals or groups that have proven themselves unequivocally to deserve those descriptions), we are using the gift of speech for harm.
The Torah calls on us to use our speech to build, rather than destroy. To use it, as Ms. Lewinsky urges, to cultivate a culture of empathy and compassion instead of a culture of humiliation, criticism and punishment. Not only to speak constructively, but also to close our ears to negative speech, and drown it out with kind and encouraging voices.
I try to be careful about how I speak and write, and I try to think ten times before saying or writing anything that is harsh or critical. But every once in a while I will hurt someone with my words. I think the blessing-and-curse of being highly sensitive and empathetic makes it easier for me to be aware of the effect words have on others, and that also makes this issue particularly important to me. But I am no saint and I struggle with avoiding negative speech just like the next person. It’s not an easy trait to cultivate, but I think it is of far greater importance than most people realize.
1. If you were not old enough to be politically aware, or were otherwise living under a rock, during 1998, here you go.↩
Blog readers: Do you remember when someone’s speech, positive or negative, had a deep and lasting impact on you? Please tell us about it in the comments. (And as per the halakhot of shmirat halashon, if your story casts someone in a negative light, please avoid details that reveal that person’s identity to someone who might know him or her.)
Also: if you are interested in learning more about this topic, cultivating constructive speech and avoiding destructive speech, I have a friend who runs this daily e-mail service, “Protect Our Speech”, that sends one short e-mail lesson per day about shmirat halashon. You can subscribe by sending an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find the lessons on Facebook under the “Protect Our Speech” community.