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
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
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
- “I’d say it to their face
- “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
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
Moreover, lashon hara is
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
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
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
“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.
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.”