Re’ih- Violence and Abuse of Language

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 9 September 2019

I’m not quite sure what the right word is: shocked, dismayed, appalled, by the language being used in public life, and the level of invective that is evident in social media. I hope that you share those concerns.

I’m currently reading The Ministry of Truth, subtitled, A biography of George Orwell’s 1984. It describes how, why and when the book came to be written; what its reception was when it was published in June 1949 and what has happened to it in the 70 years since then. It’s fascinating to see how much it has influenced contemporary life in so many ways. It has been adapted for cinema, TV, radio, ballet, theatre and opera; it influenced Patrick McGoohan’s 1960s TV series, The Prisoner; David Bowie and The Clash; Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange; Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale; Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. It provided the name for the TV reality show Big Brother and the Room 101 programme. The sales pitch of the first-ever advert for Apple Macintosh – in 1983 – was: “On January 24th 1984 Apple computers will introduce the Macintosh and you will see why 1984 won’t be like Orwell’s 1984.” Orwell’s Thought Police, Newspeak couldn’t be more relevant in this age of ‘fake news,’ and ‘alternative facts.’

Now Orwell didn’t invent either of those phrases. But the new twist on them in our time is that they fly, quite brazenly and unashamedly, in the face of all evidence and aren’t even concerned to hide their own contradictions. Donald Trump’s claims about the numbers present at his inauguration, for example, or the slogans on the side of the Brexit bus are just two examples from the recent past.

In 1984, the hero, Winston, finally comes to believe that 2 plus 2 equals 5. Now if you tell me that 2 plus 2 equals 5, I won’t conclude you’ve been brainwashed but simply that you’re just lousy at maths. But If I hear you argue with conviction that 2 plus 2 equals, say, 386, I’ll know that something else altogether is going on, that there’s some other purpose behind what you are saying – and that’s what ‘fake news’ is really about.

The level of lying, personal invective and attack that have entered everyday parlance is just appalling. Jacob Rees Mogg’s attack on that Consultant neurologist last Thursday was simply the latest example. By yesterday morning he had apologised – but didn’t explain why he said it in the first place. And the mere fact of saying it is enough to release a poison into the atmosphere. Hateful speech damages three people, suggests the Talmud (Arachin 15b): the person at the receiving end; the person who says it and anybody who hears it.

So how do we respect, honour, give space to those with whom we might very deeply disagree? How do we avoid getting sucked into a level of verbal abuse which now seems to have been given a green light from so many public figures? None of us are immune from the corrosive effect of that sort of language.

Leonard Swidler is Professor of Catholic Thought at Temple University in Philadelphia. Much of his professional career has been devoted to promoting dialogue between different religious groups. In that context he drew up what he called his ‘Ten Commandments for religious dialogue.’ While he was writing about religious dialogue, many of those Ten Commandments apply to any civil discourse between people.

One of them reminds us not to confuse ideals with everyday practice. For is it not true that we tend to judge ourselves by our highest ideals – which are seldom translated into practice? But when we look at others we tend to look at their practice which invariably falls short of their ideals – just as our practice falls short of our ideals.

Another of his commandments looks at how we speak about each other. There can be no real dialogue if I cannot recognise myself in the way you describe me or if the other cannot recognise themselves in how I describe them. This bedevils the Israel-Palestinian debate, for example. Many Israelis see every Palestinian as a would-be terrorist; many Palestinians see every Israeli as hell-bent on keeping them subjugated. Neither view is of course matched by reality. But when that is how we see the other, what real conversation can there be between us?

Participants in dialogue, Swidler suggests, should have a healthy level of criticism towards their own traditions. Many years ago, I remember Pelican books ran a series called ‘Objections to…’ – ‘Objections to Christianity,’ ‘Psychoanalysis,’ ‘Humanism’ and so on, each with a number of essays around that theme. What made them special, though, was that they were written not by critics from the outside but from ‘practitioners’ as it were. So, for example, psychoanalysts wrote the essays in ‘Objections to Psychoanalysis,’ or humanists the essays in ‘Objections to Humanism.’ After all, the best critics of a philosophy, a religion, a political approach, are those in that system. They know it intimately, from the inside, in a way no outsider ever can.

In recent years, we have been witnesses to what can happen when speech and language are misused. But we are not passive spectators and do not remain unaffected by that. Jewish teaching sees speech as a fundamental piece of the jigsaw that makes up an affirmative attitude to life. Mi ha’ish asher he’chafetz chayyim, asks the Psalmist (34:13) -“who is the person who desires life?” And says, n’tsor l’shonecha meira us’fatecha mi’daber mirmah.” “Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking guile.” It’s the phrase with which we ended the Amidah: Elohai, n’tsor l’shoni, meira. “My God, keep my tongue from causing harm.”

A midrash on Psalms says that you can hurt somebody in at least two ways: with a sword or with an arrow. Aren’t they the same? it asks. Not at all, comes the answer. You can draw a sword to hurt somebody but they might beg for mercy, or you might have second thoughts. In any case, you can put the sword back in its sheath. But the arrow, once released, has gone, and you can’t get it back. That was the issue with Jacob Rees-Mogg on Thursday. His words, arrow-like, were launched; a nano-second later, he might have regretted saying them – but by then they were out there in the public domain.

In 1992, Amos Oz was awarded the International Peace Prize of the German Publisher’s Association. In his acceptance speech he said: “….. I constantly remind myself that telling good from evil is relatively easy. The real moral challenge is to distinguish between different shades of grey; ….. to differentiate between bad and worse and worst. …. there is a ceaseless struggle against the degradation of language, against the perpetuation of stereotypes, racism and intolerance, against the celebration of violence.” [in Israel, Palestine and Peace: Essays, Vintage Books, London 1994, pp68/69, 76)

That speech was given over 25 years ago. How much more so have we seen, in recent times, how words are seldom just words? None of us is immune from launching them off like arrows, unable to be recalled, their damage done.

Elohai, n’tsor leshoneinu meira  “our God, guard our tongues from causing harm,” us’fateinu mi’dabrim mirmah “and our lips from telling lies.”