Posts Tagged harm

Religion: Guard My Speech by Rabbi Debbie Israel*

December 8, 2022

Each of us have experienced the power of words. The internet has made spreading rumors and gossip so easy—all we have to do is press “copy” or “forward” or “share” on our computers.  Disagreements quickly become angry exchanges; people speak rudely to and about one another; and civil discourse is the new code word for “dial it down.”

Rabbi Debbie Israel

Careful speech is an important Jewish ethical discipline. Our scholars have taught us that words have great power, teaching the importance of being vigilant in our usage of speech and to avoid others’ unethical speech, called in Hebrew “lashon harah,” the evil tongue.

Remember those childhood lessons we learned about words: If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all; think before you speak. What about this one: sticks and stones will break our bones but words will never harm us. We know that’s not true. Bones mend but hurtful words stay for a long time, sometimes forever.

Even innocent comments can cause harm to another person. We must especially exercise great care to avoid embarrassing someone.

Harmful words are often used intentionally. Talk show hosts and callers and politicians verbally attack anyone who has a different point of view. Store shoppers take out their frustrations on innocent clerks. Each of us has probably let slip a tirade from time to time.

While it’s easy to look at the behavior of others, it’s so much harder to judge ourselves. Almost always, we feel our responses are justified. We don’t think of it as gossiping; it’s just talking, keeping up, sharing information. When we belittle others, we rationalize that they deserve it. We tattle about others, we spread rumors, we rob others of their good name.

Why do we do it? Often we justify that it’s just conversation. We’re just being social. Maybe gossiping proves how much we know or that we have inside sources. Maybe we do it to be liked, sharing insider scoops. Gossiping and criticizing others is how we feel more powerful—putting others down to build up our own self esteem.

Well, if we can’t gossip what can we say to one another? Rabbi Jack Riemer has some suggestions. How about saying things that will get us more personally in touch with other people: How are you? What do you need? What can I do to help? What’s happening in your life? You did a great job. That looked difficult but you did it. Thank you. I appreciate what you did. You are special. And of course, I love you.

It is helpful to include this prayer in our daily practice, a prayer that Jews recite at every service: “Keep my speech from evil and my lips from deception.”

*Rabbi Debbie Israel is Rabbi Emerita of Congregation Emeth Jewish Community and the Executive Director of Interfaith Activities in South County. All faith communities of South County are welcome to participate in the Religion column of the Morgan Hill Times and Gilroy Dispatch.  To join the rotation of writers, clergy should contact

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Snark: It’s Ruining Our Conversation.

David Denby. Snark: It’s Mean; It’s Personal and It’s Ruining Our Conversation. New York. Simon and Schuster. ©2009.

            David Denby’s Snark is much like my undergraduate music appreciation course. I enrolled because I thought that it would be an easy enjoyable romp for a high grade. I was only half right. It was enjoyable. The same is true for Snark. People have been hunting the Snark since the publication of Lewis Carroll’s, “The Hunting of the Snark,” in 1876.  Thousands have found it and suffered its fangs but none have succeeded in killing it. Denby maintains that Snarks existed much earlier than most advocates realize and he is supported by the English Oxford Dictionary.

            Snark is much more than a casual read. There is much research presented to support the claims. Much of it enlightening and much of it is tedious. Snark is individualized. It is intended to inflict pain or to make the person snarked disappear. It is often camouflaged as humor; however, it has absolutely no redeeming characteristics. “Snark is not the same as hate speech, which is abuse directed at groups. Hate speech slashes and burns, and hopes to incite but without much attempt at humor.”  Denby further distinguishes it from teenagers on the internet who taunt the parents of children murdered or abused.

            “Snark will get you any way it can and to hell with consistency.” Denby does not advocate for the demise of humor or the very clever sarcastic comment delivered with style. Politicians are fair game. He is a fan of Stephen Colbert and Jon Stewart.

            The real consequences of Snark are often felt by the very vulnerable – people who are so undone by the attacks that they can no longer function and disappear from view. That is the real purpose to make its targets vanish. The results may come to life years later when the college student caught on a cell phone camera in some sexual exploit or smoking pot is goggled by a potential employer or he/she decides to run for a political office but the images that are stored and available forever do him in before his job interview or campaign can get off the ground.

            We have the images fresh in our minds of those two eleven year old boys who committed suicide after being relentlessly bombarded by their peers with taunts of being gay. Denby might classify this as hate speech or just bullying but it carriers with it many of the same characteristics.

            Denby offers several principles of Snark. Attack without reason. Appeal to the most common hackneyed prejudice. Race becomes heaven here, but it must be disguised. Here is a beginning statement from a McCain ad “It should be known that in 2008 the world will be blessed. They will call him … The One.”  In the South, “The One” reference usually refers to someone who has gotten above himself, usually an uppity Black.

            The third principle is to reach into a grab bag of old jokes, film clips or insults and then give each choice a new twist.  These rely on old itches or wounds for their effect.  The fourth principle is apparent even to the most casual observer; throw some mud and assume that every rumor is true or at least usable. This easily combines with the next two principles: ignore the routine responsibilities of journalism and reduce all human complexity to caricature. Ann Coulter talking on CNN reduced torture to putting a caterpillar in the same cell with a non-combatant. “Movie producers who had a few early hits followed by a flop are suddenly discovered to be ‘pricks’, arrogant losers doomed to struggle and get nowhere.”

            The last two principles are common: attack the old because nobody cares. Attack expensive highly rated restaurants.

            Standup comedians are on display. They live or die by the reactions of the audience:; however, the snarker operates in stealth. He/she uses the internet or the airwaves without fear of censorship. Some of the worst offenses are attacks on women. Every inch of their bodies is held up for ridicule. Every unfortunate sexual exploit is spread anonymously across the internet. There is no recourse. There are no standards. Wade Burleson, a noted Oklahoma pastor writing in Christian Civility in an Uncivil World offers a set of guidelines, “Ten Commandments” for the internet.[1] These offer some help, but no doubt will be totally ignored by the snarkers. The celebration of Say Something Nice Day every year on the first day of June also tackles the impossible task with gusto.

            Denby squanders the last two short chapters discussing Maureen Dowd and Keith Olbermann neither of whom he is able to clothe with any merit.

            For those among us who like the well turned phrase, the funny sarcastic remark without the barb or the intent to wound, Snark is a fun, well done read. The examples are plentiful but quarnteed to offend partisans of any stripe. Unfortunately Snark is here to stay. It has successfully eluded every attempt to kill it. It is able to continue because there are no controls and most people, even “good people” either engage in it themselves and/or are too unconcerned to confront it. The last statement of the book offers the most hope. “Vituperation that is nasty, insulting, but, well, clean may live forever. Go and commit some. You’ll feel better. You’ll make other people feel better.”

[1] Mitch Carnell, Ed. Christian Civility in an Uncivil World. Macon. Smyth & Helwys. 2009.

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