The Industry of Evil Speech

Image: Assorted tabloid headlines

Jennifer Aniston is fed up. She is not pregnant, and she’s tired of telling people that she isn’t pregnant. This week the Huffington Post published her article, For the Record, in which she writes about what it is like to be fodder for the tabloids.

Gossip is a huge industry. It masquerades as “news” and in the U.S. the people who profit from it talk righteously about the First Amendment and the public’s “right to know.” It is enormously profitable: in 2011, industry revenues topped three billion dollars.

In Hebrew, the word for gossip is rechilut (reh-khee-LOOT) and it is one of the kinds of speech that are strictly forbidden in Jewish tradition.

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shalt you stand idly by the blood of your neighbor: I am the Holy One. – Leviticus 19:16.

We often cite the second half of that verse but it bears noticing that the two concepts (talebearing and blood) are mentioned together. Gossip has consequences, even when the reports are true, as Ms. Aniston illustrates in her article. Paparazzi make people’s lives miserable; they engage in unsafe practices like car chases and ambushes. They harass not only the celebrity but children and employees and bystanders. They do this because tabloids and magazines like People pay a huge premium for “gotcha” pictures which appear to tell a salacious story or which paint the celebrity in an unfavorable light.

Rechilut, gossip, is a serious matter for Jews. Maimonides explains that it is even worse to spread reports about someone if those reports may damage their reputation. This is what is known as the sin of lashon harah, “evil speech.”

Who is a gossiper? One who collects information and [then] goes from person to person, saying: “This is what so-and-so said;” “This is what I heard about so-and-so.” Even if the statements are true, they bring about the destruction of the world.

There is a much more serious sin than [gossip], which is also included in this prohibition: lashon harah, that is, relating deprecating facts about a colleague, even if they are true. – Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot

And this is in fact what the gossip mongers sell under the guise of “entertainment news.” The headlines are always the same: speculation about marital infidelity, weight gain, weight loss, pregnancy (and who’s the father?) and so on.

Some may argue that when someone goes into public life, they sign up for this treatment. But the fact is that other human beings do not exist for our entertainment. They do not owe us anything except the time and expertise for which we pay them. It is fine to watch Jennifer Aniston’s work as an actress on TV, but it is not acceptable to read gossipy speculation about her in People or the National Enquirer.

Because you see, we are the other half of the equation: this evil industry would not exist if we did not provide a market for it. When we click on a gossipy item, we provide a market. When we buy the Inquirer or People or Us, we provide a market. When we watch TMZ or similar shows, we provide a market.

When I see a tempting item on the screen or the cover of a magazine, I remind myself, “Is it really my business?” The answer is usually “no.”

Let’s step off the lashon harah assembly line. Life is too precious to waste it on trash.


“Miracles” in the News

Big News
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My atheist friends give me a lot to ponder.  One wrote passionately on facebook:

Media: Stop using the word miracle. It has a whole host of implications, and some of the ones from the last 24 hours of the news cycle are horrifying, and deeply offensive. Don’t use it. Just don’t.

I knew immediately what he meant: there’s a story in the news about three young women who were kidnapped ten years ago and finally managed to escape their captors.  I agree with my friend, using “miracle” in this context is a minefield.  We’re talking about three young women who appear to have suffered imprisonment and abuse for a decade – he’s right, the word “miracle” is just gross.

That thought led me to another: is the obsessive reportage of this story a problem when we look at it at through the lens of Torah? My answer to that is a swift, “You betcha.”

The story is all over the news right now, and because it is upsetting, people want to talk about it. The fact that it is upsetting and sensational is the reason it’s all over the news, too -Big News is in the business of selling advertising time, after all: this story is much more mezmerizing than drones or the economic crisis facing most Americans. It will sell more soap flakes, and more diet aids, and after all, that is the bottom line.

Torah demands of us that we ask questions: instead of nattering about miracles or obsessing over salacious details, let’s stop and think, what speech is necessary? And is there any way we can learn something or be helpful?

OK, it was necessary to report the story; we need to do know what the cops do, and what goes on in our community. I’m less clear that I need to know about something like this in Cleveland when I live in California, but OK, I’ll go that far. But do I need breathless prose about miracles and gory details from well-coiffed anchors? I don’t think so. Do those poor women need microphones poked in their faces? Do their families? No and no.

Jewish tradition forbids talking about other people unless it is necessary. Rabbi Joseph Telushkin wrote a wonderful book on the subject, Words that Hurt, Words that Heal. has an article that gives you the short form of his teaching about lashon hara, [evil speech.]  Especially if the words we use could spoil someone’s reputation, or even cause envy, they are not proper speech for a Jew  even if they are true. Jewish law is stricter than American civil law on this subject: the truth of the words is immaterial, if they have any potential to cause injury, we shouldn’t say them.

There are words that ARE necessary, sometimes, even unpleasant words. We are commanded not to be passive when someone is being hurt (Lev. 19:16) so by all means, if you know of a crime or a possible crime, report it.

What speech is truly  necessary, in the case of the news story? Certainly, if you’ve heard the story and it upsets you, find someone with whom to discuss your feelings. The details of those women’s suffering are not our business; they are the business of law enforcement and the courts.  My fears, and my upset are my business. If I find I can’t leave this story alone, then I should talk it out with a rabbi, a therapist, or maybe a trusted friend.

It may be too, that with the story everywhere, it is necessary to talk to children about it. We need to reassure children that (1) this is very unusual and that (2)it is important not to go anywhere with strangers, etc. We also need to tell our children that we will value them no matter what, that they are infinitely precious, and that nothing will change that.

What can we learn? Perhaps we could learn to ask more questions when a situation in our neighborhood seems “a bit off.”  I’m afraid that’s all I can think of, though: this isn’t a news story that will inform my vote, or cause me to write my congressman, or make me a wiser person.

Speculating about it or treating this event as if it is some kind of entertainment is a low form of gossip.  Making theology out of it (miracles! redemption!) verges on blasphemy.  I am not in charge of Corporate News, but I am in charge of my keyboard and my remote. Jewish tradition suggests that if there is something that needs to be said, I should say it; if there is something that needs to be done, I should do it, but that beyond that, it’s seriously time to turn off the news.