Sermon: The Olympics and how we speak to one another

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 20 August 2016

Just like eight years ago; just like four years ago, I was determined not to care.  I was determined not to waste my evenings in front of the television, determined to hold on to my cynicism.

And just like those times, I’ve ended up moved, involved, invested… caring about odd things that don’t matter – like track cycling and volleyball, diving, rugby sevens – even canoe sprint racing!

It is one of the odd things about the Olympic Games that somehow, somehow, they capture the imagination even when they really shouldn’t.
And not just the success stories – the problems capture the imagination, too: the green pool, Brazilian spectators with a different understanding of sporting etiquette, the strange story of the American swimmers and the made up gunpoint robbery.

There have been things to tarnish the experience: A casual sexism that seems to be acceptable around coverage of the Games in a way that is not found at other times; the British media’s strange obsession with the medal table.
But perhaps the sourest note of the games has been the story of Gabby Douglas.

Douglas was one of America’s stars at the London Olympics.  She was the first African-American woman to win the individual all-around gymnastics gold medal – a feat for which she was feted.  She featured on the cover of Time magazine, and had a special Corn Flakes box with her image.  And four years on she was part of the group that won the gold medal team event.

And then she did something terrible.
As the American national anthem was played, she held her arms by her side.  While all of her team mates placed their hands over their heart, she held her arms by her side.
And the response was terrifying.  She was accused of being disrespectful, of being unpatriotic, of dishonouring the flag of the country that gave her the opportunity to compete.  She became the subject of an ugly hashtag, #crabbygabby.

It is a small story that, in this country, received little coverage.  But it is a very modern story; one that contains so many of the more negative aspects of modern life.
It is, in part, a story about patriotism and loyalty, about how we express how we feel about our home countries.  About a strange demand – one that we, as Jews, are very familiar with, for overt expressions of loyalty, especially from ethnic minorities.
It is a story about conformity and individuality – about expectations that people will behave in the same way as those around them – what it is to be the only one who behaves differently.
It is, a story about gender, and about race, especially in the US.  More than a few commentators have noticed the difference in media treatment of white, male swimmers – be it Michael Phelps joking about during the national anthem or the fake robbery boys – and an African American woman.

But most of all it is a story about how we speak to and about one another in an age of social media.
For Gabby Douglas we can read Helen Skelton, or Emma Trott, or Caster Semenya – all targets of abuse during these Olympic Games.  Social media – a source for good, too, of that there’s no doubt – social media has, if not promoted, then certainly facilitated a new, unrestrained verbal aggression.  So many of the athletes and their families, and indeed the presenters on television, have found themselves the subjects of abuse.

This is not, of course, unique to the Olympics – just ask Leslie Jones, the star of the new Ghostbusters film, who received a barrage of racist abuse when the film was released.  And it is worth noting that often, as in the case of Gabby Douglas, there is a powerful positive response, a reaction to the negativity, on social media: #love4gabbyusa.

But there is something distinctive about this and the Olympics; a dissonance between the spirit of the event and the attitude found on social media.  The Olympics are a time when we celebrate a form of achievement – a relatively unimportant one in the scheme of things, certainly – but impressive achievements nonetheless.  And it is therefore all the more noticeable when those who have maybe not achieved so much seek to make themselves bigger by attacking those who have.

This is one of the outstanding features of Twitter use: the desire of some to make themselves feel big by diminishing the achievement of others.  I am reminded of a story about Rabbi Israel Salanter, the nineteenth century rabbi credited as father of the Mussar movement, which is concerned with ethical behaviour, which every twitter user should remember before they put thumb to screen.  It’s told that one day he was walking in the street and came across two boys who had been fighting with each other.  One had thrown the other into the ditch at the side of the road.  The stronger boy explained to Salanter that they were having an argument about which of them was bigger. “So I threw him into a ditch and now there is no argument that I stand taller.”  Salanter is said to have replied, “To make yourself bigger you don’t need to make someone else smaller – you can achieve the same by standing on a chair”.  It is a feature of the Douglas story, of our modern lives, of social media, that many feel that it is easier to belittle others, to throw them in a ditch, than to raise themselves.

And they do so with an extraordinary looseness with words.  For her perceived misdeed, Douglas was accused of disloyalty, of disrespect, of being un-American, and worse.  She was abused, as she had been before, for the texture of her hair, and the quality of her skin.  And the impact on her was significant. Her mother has described her as heartbroken.

For whatever reason – perhaps the immediacy of twitter, perhaps that tweets are normally written in isolation from others, perhaps the example of our leaders – we seem to have forgotten the power of words, how destructive they can be, how much they can impact, even over Twitter.  But, as the Book of Proverbs states, “Hamavet v’hahayyim b’yad halashon – death and life are in the hand of the tongue.”   Our tradition is under no illusions about the importance of words.  The rabbis argued that ona’at devarim – hurting with words is worse than wronging someone financially.  Rabbi Eleazar is quoted in the Babylonian Talmud as explaining that while wronging someone financially only hurts their money, verbal wronging affects the victim’s very being.  Among the very worst things a person can do, according to the rabbis, is what they call halbanat panim – the whitening of the face – causing someone to be shamed so that they go pale.  To the rabbis it is equivalent to shedding blood.  It is, according to Rabbi Chanina, among three offences that condemn someone to remain eternally in the abyss of gehenna after death.

There is one other aspect of the Gabby Douglas story that seems to be a particular feature of the Twitterverse – the inclination to assume the worst of others.  Gabby Douglas didn’t hold her hands by her side because she was disrespectful or disloyal, or un-American.  She just held her hands by her side.  Maybe she was tired, emotional, maybe she just was in the moment.  But the response assumed that she did it on purpose.  This is a form of what, in social psychology, is known as the fundamental attribution error – the tendency to emphasise the characteristics or intent of someone rather than external factors.  It is why when you go down the wrong lane and need to pull in in front of someone else, it is a mistake, but when someone else does it to you, they are doing it because they are horrible.  Again, it is something about which Judaism cautions.  There is a value known as Dan L’Chaf Zechut.  Literally it means to judge on the scale of merit – more idiomatically, to give people the benefit of the doubt, or to not automatically assume the worst.  To quote the Baal Shem Tov commenting on the commandment to love your neighbour – “From the Mitzvah to love your fellow as yourself we learn the virtue of Dan L’Chaf Zechut – to judge on the scale of merit – Since you always find excuses for your own misdeeds, make excuses also for your fellow”.  It is something that we need to work hard to remember, and the Olympics has demonstrated this once again.

So, just like eight years ago; just like four years ago, despite my determination not to care, I’ve ended up moved, involved, invested.
But also, this Olympics, saddened.  Saddened by what it has provoked in others.
I have no real idea who Gabby Douglas is, but, then, nor do those who attack her.  And her experience is almost a microcosm of some of the ills of modern life – the desire to belittle others, looseness with words, always assuming the worst.
Perhaps – perhaps with the insight of our tradition – we can find a way to move away from these behaviours.
Because the only thing we really ought to associate with the Olympics is an inexplicable interest in BMX biking.