This week I spent an hour with 225 ninth and tenth grade students at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts talking specifically about why words matter. We discussed the ethics of speech, the dangers in social media, and how what we say privately and publicly have in the last several years coarsened to the detriment of civility our society.
I showed them a passage from the California Civil Code section 44 that defines “Defamation” as
“an act of communication that causes someone to be shamed, ridiculed, held in contempt, lowered in the estimation of the community, or to lose employment status or earnings or otherwise suffer a damaged reputation.”
We discussed the difference between someone who incessantly lies as opposed to calling out such a person publicly as “liar.” One young lady rightly explained that the first describes a bad behavior and the second attacks a person and fits the definition of “defamation.”
I began my talk with this elite group of young people (thousands applied to this school for 600 spots) by sharing with them language from a blog that followed an op-ed by David Brooks of the NY Times.
In his piece that he called “Respect First, Then Gun Control” (NY Times February 19) Brooks talked about the importance of civility as opposed to rudeness. In response, a blogger named Drew Magary went ballistic. I happened to agree with Magary’s position (which is not the purpose of me raising this matter here), but I found his piece offensive and defamatory (see “The Importance of Rudeness | GQ – https://www.gq.com/story/on-rudeness)
Here is some of what Magary wrote:
“So let’s talk about rudeness for a moment, because we live in rude times. The president is a pig. His underlings are nothing but a bunch of opportunists and enablers. And the rest of GOP is staffed by a wide range of scum, from camera-friendly establishment monsters like Paul Ryan to outright crackpots like this guy. When the president’s own little pukeson decides to endorse a conspiracy theorist truthering the motives of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas teenagers, I feel like that’s a much greater sign of the end of civilization than someone rightfully telling a lady at the Times that she should take the L.
None of these people deserve civility. In fact, civility only serves to enable them. The fact that Trump can go party at his f_ _ _ing country club on the same weekend 17 teenagers were slaughtered inside a school, and have NO ONE surrounding him say an unkind word to him, is damnable.”
Again – I happen to agree with Magary’s moral positions, but he went on using the vilest of language reflecting the vulgarization of this era in American life. His are angry words, and I understand that because I’m angry too, but uncontrolled rage can get us the opposite of what we really want besides an opportunity to vent.
This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, highlights Moses’ anger at his people at the scene of the golden calf.
We learn that Moses had brought down the tablets from Mount Sinai after spending forty days and nights communing with God. As he was returning to the Israelite camp he heard the celebratory voices around a golden calf and then saw the revelry. Enraged by the idolatry, he smashed the tablets, burned the golden calf, ground it to powder, and force fed it to the guilty Israelites before he killed ten thousand Israelites who participated in this calumny. (Exodus 32:15-20).
In the next chapter we learn that Moses pitched his tent outside the camp (Exodus 33:7) “…because he was tired of the people’s constant complaining and criticism.” (Yerushalmi B’chorim 3:3)
God then approached Moses and said: “I want you to change your mind, go back to the camp, and deal with the people face to face.” (Midrash Rabbah (45:2) based on Exodus 33:11)
In other words, God was saying: ‘Moses – get it together and control your rage.’
Of course Moses was angry just as so many Americans are angry at Congress’ and this President’s inaction to curb gun violence in America.
I don’t at all blame Moses for his weariness and impatience with the people. He had dealt with their obstinacy since leaving Egypt. He’d had enough. God reminded him, however, that leading a community while angry is no way to lead.
I’ve learned that once leaders lose their temper they lose not just the argument they are advocating but the faith of the people in their leadership.
The worst thing a leader can do is to respond to others with whom we disagree intemperately, impatiently, angrily, and judgmentally. Inner calm is a virtue, and demeaning an opponent personally who we may dislike intensely is nevertheless from an ethical perspective the greatest sin.
I made this point loud and clear to these 225 students. ‘Use your words,’ I said, ‘but say what you say with calm and focused dignity, thoughtfully, and without demeaning the “other.”
Judaism ascribes Moses’ loss of the right to enter the Promised Land as a result of his hitting the rock from anger instead of speaking words to it as God had commanded him.
The Talmud says: “If a person loses his temper – If she is originally wise, she loses her wisdom, and if he is a prophet, he loses his prophecy.” (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 66b).
The coarsening of our society is a sign of our society’s demise, and I believe each of us should do everything we can to avoid being engulfed in that spirit. It’s bad for us and it’s bad for everyone.
Thanks for this reminder, Rabbi. Communication is based on respect. It stops when words, or actions, convey disrespect. In my life, I find it easier to hold respect for the other with whom I disagree when I look for the Kavode in their eyes. When I see it, I know that we will communicate peacefully. Dr. Robert Newport