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Do not launch words of mass destruction

Dave Gordon - Saturday, 11 October, 2014

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I’ll say it with certainty: if given the choice between smacked hard in the head with a baseball bat, or a personal detail of mine being revealed to many people, I’d choose to have my head whacked.

A whack in the head, in time, can heal.

Humiliation, however, is far worse, and the emotional pain lasts much longer.

The old adage “sticks and stones may break my bones but names can never hurt me” is actually the opposite: with few exceptions, words are the very things that cause so much pain and strife between people.

David K. Williams in Forbes recently wrote Talking About Others: The Good, Great and Intolerable – expanding on the idea that speaking about another behind their back has terrible consequences. If Forbes – a respected media outlet – begins discussing the problems of gossip, you know you should take it seriously.

Most people fail to consider the dangerous outcome of tale bearing. Soon enough, the listeners believe the target of the discussion isn’t such a good person.

Since time immemorial, people have made themselves feel good by ‘dishing’ on someone else, putting down another, badmouthing their fellow; degrading another. In some instances, the transgressor seeks revenge in the form of winning the court of public opinion, to politicize others.

There are many default rationalizations offered, including:

  • “Shouldn’t it be OK to speak about another if it’s true?”
  • “Isn’t there freedom of speech?”
  • “I’d say it to their face anyway!”
  • “I needed to speak to all these people about so-and-so to get a sounding board”
  • “I never had bad intentions”

Those are superficial excuses for talking about another’s personal issues. The result, however, is always the same: telling stories about others changes the perception of the listener, often for the worse.

Talking about another has the potential to tear the victim’s reputation -- gossip ruins relationships, destroys families, disintegrates friendships.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin – renown for his books on Jewish values - has written about the topic of gossip at length, and has focused specifically on it in his book Words That Hurt, Words that Heal.

One of the poignant questions he poses to the would-be gossiper is this: What if you walked into a room and everyone began talking about your secrets, and the private issues that cause you embarrassment?

Judaism –for good reason - calls gossip literally “evil speech”, or lashon hara.

In its basic form, it is comprised of true information about someone else that has the potential to make the victim uncomfortable in any way.

It stands to reason that when those words are unflattering, humiliating, mischaracterized, or spoken with derision, lashon hara is at its very worst.

Moreover, lashon hara is unforgivable, Telushkin writes, because the damage to one’s good name cannot be fully recovered. (Code of Jewish Ethics Volume 1: You Shall Be Holy.)

That gossiped-about disparaging information becomes the primary association about the victim to others. It is near-impossible to undo.

Speech can easily be wielded as a powerful weapon.

Take the recent case of Toronto-area teacher Douglas Queen.

When an allegation surfaced of him physically abusing a student, the school’s protocol required Queen to head home. Both police, and Children’s Aid, were called in.

Queen had subsequently disappeared for two days, not answering texts or phone calls.

A television news report the night he disappeared had reported on Queen, and a student’s allegation.

Social media, and the school community, were abuzz in speculation. Conclusions were drawn, thread together with assumptions: a teacher with access to children, an accusation, and a man fleeing. It all looked so damning.

But the allegation actually sprung from a fourth-hand report, police discovered. And when they interviewed the student thought to be harmed, the story turned out to be untrue.

Still, rumours continued to circulate online.

Police eventually found Queen’s body in a nearby waterway, determining that he slipped off the rocks accidentally to his death. Despite the evidence that proves his innocence, Queen’s family is still fighting to set the record straight.

“You’re trying to grieve, but there’s this cloud in the way, knowing what people think,” said Queen’s wife to the media.

“I want to clear his name.”

This effect of hurtful speech is what Dennis Prager - one of the most respected modern theologians - refers to as “the rape of a name”. The victim’s good name has been sullied, raped.

In Jewish tradition there’s a famous story that illustrates this point:

A man visits his rabbi to find out how he can repair the damage done by speaking ill of another.

The rabbi instructs that this fellow take a pillow, tear it, and scatter the feathers everywhere in the wind. He is then to return to the rabbi.

After doing so, the man is instructed to pick up all of the feathers. “The feathers by now have scattered throughout the village!” he says.

“Precisely,” the rabbi says. “And so too has the damage you have caused to your neighbor’s reputation.”

One only has to recollect all of those bullying victims we hear so often about, shamed so terribly by others’ hurtful words.

You’ve heard of weapons of mass destruction. Striking another behind their back should be called “words of mass destruction.”


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