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Thinking on the power of words

Betty Firth
Posted 7/13/22

When does it make sense to speak up and when is it better to refrain from speaking? Is it ethical to lie sometimes? Should you always reveal information you believe to be true even if it hurts …

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Thinking on the power of words


When does it make sense to speak up and when is it better to refrain from speaking? Is it ethical to lie sometimes? Should you always reveal information you believe to be true even if it hurts others?
Rabbi Joseph Telushkin tackles these questions and many other issues relating to communication between people in his book, Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, How to Choose Words Wisely and Well. I picked up the book at a garage sale, thinking it might offer me some new perspectives on this fascinating and perplexing topic that is so critical to human relationships.
Telushkin devotes quite a bit of space to a favorite pastime of our species, that of gossiping, emphasizing the damage that thoughtless words can inflict. We are naturally curious about others’ lives and how they manage and are particularly fascinated by details of their intimate social lives, hence the popularity of TV shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. We also have an unfortunate tendency to focus on what we perceive as character flaws. Many reality shows pit people against each other in competitive situations to create tension, drama, and conflict. Does it make us feel superior to point out others’ weaknesses? In his workshops, Telushkin throws out a challenge to go twenty-four hours without saying any unkind words to or about anybody. Give it a try. Keep it honest…don’t skew the results by being kinder than you usually are! Do you speak up when someone else gossips or bends the truth?
Telushkin explains that Jewish law regards humiliating another person, particularly in public, as one of the cruelest things one can do. I’m sure we’ve all taken (and given) jabs in our lives, but parents, teachers, siblings, friends, and employers are often oblivious to the harm they are doing with offhand, negative comments, such as, “Are you ever going to get this right?” “Why can’t you be more like your sister?” Such snide remarks can undermine a person’s self-confidence and cause them to withdraw from others or pass along the negativity. It also sets a bad example of how to treat others. Parents often get a lesson in humility when they hear their own less-than-kind words and harsh tones falling out of their children’s mouths as they pass along negativity to a sibling or pet.
Don Rickels became famous for his stinging humiliation of audience members. I never did understand why he was so popular, but apparently people enjoyed the cruel barbs, as long as they weren’t the object of his derision. Snappy or sarcastic assessments can become a habit to amuse people or let others know that you’re “in the know.” Being a “word person,” I often have verbal quips come to mind, which can be sarcastic or teasing. There can be a thin line between amusing and hurtful, so I try to be mindful, not always succeeding.
The author tells the story of a man who was slandering the rabbi in his community. Then, feeling remorseful, he begged for forgiveness, offering to undergo whatever penance the rabbi offered to make amends. The rabbi told him to tear open a feather pillow and scatter the feathers to the wind. The man did so and asked if he were forgiven. “Just one more thing,” responded the rabbi. “Go and gather all the feathers.” The man protested that it was impossible. “Precisely,” answered the rabbi. “And although you may wish to correct the evil you have done, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to recover the feathers.”
Telushkin remarks that it’s much harder to be clever when praising someone, and indeed, you don’t hear comedians telling many funny stories about how intelligent, caring, graceful, and compassionate people are. We may love to hear good news stories, but that cackling, self-serving inner self often enjoys the snarky stories more.
Rabbi Tulushkin uses the term “micro lies” for untruths told to protect other people’s feelings or safety, considered permissible at times . However, it is not permissible to lie about “macro” issues that transcend the individual and are often used as propaganda to mobilize and manipulate large numbers of people for some cause, whether for good or evil. One particularly pernicious example is a late nineteenth-century forgery, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, supposed to have revealed “an international Jewish conspiracy to take over the world and to plunge nations into warfare and poverty.” The Nazis cited it as a “warrant for genocide” against the Jews, which laid the groundwork for the Holocaust when six million Jews were murdered.
On the flip side of the political spectrum, while stopping short of advocating genocide, in World War I, Allied propagandists made up stories about terrible atrocities committed by German occupying troops, including slaughtering children and raping nuns. The intent was to motivate the Allied troops and unite their citizens, which did happen. The lies were revealed after the war, and twenty years later, when the very real German atrocities were being reported, the public was slow to believe they were really happening.
Today we certainly see the harmful effects of widespread fabrication about any number of serious issues. Hearing some of the fantastical lies being propagated on the internet, I am stunned that even one person would believe them, much less throngs of people. But, to my mind, the more disastrous effect is how people are worn down, fatigued by the ongoing battle of lies and often unable to discern where truth lies. People lose confidence in candidates, elected officials, government, and institutions of all kinds. Who is to be trusted?
Recently I read a four-column rant about Democrats in a letter to the editor published in another paper in which the writer made generous use of exaggerated statements and insulting language. While I personally felt his position would have been strengthened by keeping to the facts, I can see how his emotional tirade could appeal to people frustrated with conditions today.
Telushkin advocates for a national “Speak No Evil Day” for everyone to refrain from all vicious and unfair talk. In fact, on July 17, 1995, Senators Connie Mack and Joseph Lieberman submitted a resolution to do just that to provide a break from and increase awareness of the damage caused by “excessive anger, unfair criticism, public and private humiliation, bigoted comments, cruel jokes, or rumors and malicious gossip,” while also planting a seed for a more permanent shift in consciousness.
If you’re willing to give it a try, here are some helpful questions to ask yourself, “Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary to say it?”