Lashon Harah

This shabbat, my friends and I decided to engage in the custom of zemirot: melodies that are meant to be sung at shabbat meals. I am unsure of how the phenomena began, but I could not help but wonder if it was more than a coincidence that when one is busy singing, it is impossible to engage in lashon hara – “evil speech” – a topic that is very likely to crop up at a songless shabbat meal.

Let me explain: In Judaism, one is forbidden from gossiping or reciting negative things about one’s fellow behind that person’s back. (There are exceptions: For example, when withholding negative information about Person A from Person B might harm Person B, you are oblgiated to not withhold that information.) This law, for me, embodies a few principles:

1. Hypocrisy – One should not act differently behind someone’s back than they would to their face.

2. Fooling Others – Secretly gossiping around someone means you are fooling them: They think you feel a certain way towards them, when in fact, you feel differently. This violates the Biblical injunction to stay away from lies.

3.  Objectification: It objectifies others when you turn them/their lives into an object to be discussed for your amusement.

4. Benefitting (socially, by being the entertaining one/one with the breaking news) at the expense of others (ie the one you’re gossiping about).

5. Respecting the privacy of others.

When I went to a secular college, what I found most shocking, was that there is no concept of gossip – even painful gossip – being wrong. Putting down others behind their back, in order to entertain your friends, is considered normal and morally neutral. I think that this culture of gossip, objectification, and lack of respect for privacy, pervades much of the tabloid magazine and reality TV culture. One of the major “perks” of many reality TV shows is that you get to make fun of the characters: It’s why “American Idol” is rumored to cast one untalented contestant per season, just so that there will be someone for audiences to make fun of, thus giving them more motivation to watch the show.

Much of the bullying that occurs today in elementary schools and highschools – and even colleges – is not direct bullying, but rather, behind-the-back bullying consisting mainly of internet gossip and rumor mongering. Such rumors can destroy a person. In my college, there was an anonymous website people used primarily for trashing other students – soon, the trashed students would be treated differently by those who knew them: either because people believed the rumors, or because people pitied them on account of the rumors – and of course, the rumors always got back to the person, though the anonymous source didn’t.

These rumours are not incidental to highschool and college social life – in many places, they are an integral part of it. In my own college, one student confided, “Speaking about others is what gets me through the day”. How sad – that one’s life is so meaningless, that the one thing that makes one able to cope is the ability to put down others. That is why I believe that stemming gossip must involve not only preaching against gossip, but also providing people with meaningful, socially cohesive activities (such as joint music-making) to replace gossip. Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski has said that gossip is tied to low self-confidence: If one is satisfied with oneself, and believes in one’s own conversation-making skills, one has no need to put down others to feel better or to look better in front of others – or, for that matter, to use gosisp as an entertating conversation filler. As a matter of fact, Rabbi Dr. Twerski puts self-confidence as the primary precondition for properly fulfilling most Biblical commandments. This means that, essentially, in order be an obervant Jew, one must be a confident human being – making self-confidence and psychological health de facto religious obligations.

I think this is especially important in light of the recent ruling in the Tyler Clementi case: Whether or not Dharun Ravi was homophobic – something we can only truly know by being inside his head – the “practical joke” that he played was a result of the culture of online bullying – specifically, online bullying through gossip and rumors, through violating the privacy of others – that pervades modern day America. In order to fight that culture, it is not enough to spread awarness about its dangers (after all, as the Clementi case proves, it is potentially lethal), but also to focus on the larger question of why so many young Americans feel dissatisfied with their lives, and with themselves – for that is the problem that this goissp culture is a symptom of.

While this topic is too large for me to broach in one blog post, I will say that I do think the decline in religion has something to do with this problem: Religion provided a community and sense of purpose, and, aside from fascism and communism, which arose in Europe, and which the majority of Ameircans do not (nor have they ever) subscribe(d) to, not much has really arisen in religion’s place – so now you have an entire generation lacking both sense of purpose, and community – the latter of which is a major impediment to loneliness.

There are, of course, many other factors that contribute to the problem. For two of those, I will simply provide TED talks, whose speakers express the problem more eloquently than I could;

Barry Schwartz on “The Paradox of Choice”:

Alain de Botton on a “Kinder, Gentler Philosophy of Success”:

Enjoy 🙂


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