Labels and Libels

Rabbinic interpretations of our biblical texts spend an enormous amount of time and ink thinking about the transformative power of language. Lashon HaRah, the term for slander or gossip (which literally means “evil tongue” or “evil language”) is considered a major moral transgression, and we are directed not to engage in it even if it is directly requested by a parent or rabbinic authority, both of whom we would generally be expected to honor and obey. In the late 1800’s Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan wrote what became the authoritative treatise on proper use of language and the consequences of improper language; his book was called “Sefer Chafetz Chaim.” The work was so widely acknowledged that Rabbi Kagan is now primarily known as “the Chafetz Chaim.”

In commentaries on the current Torah portion, Tazriah, we learn that the affliction translated as leprosy is considered a physical consequence for the moral transgression of slander.

When we label someone (a particularly common form of Lashon HaRah in elementary and middle schools), regardless of the positive or negative valence of the label (nerd, jock, pretty, cool), we are engaging a particular form of improper language. We all get why it is bad to call someone a mean name – it hurts their feelings. But why? Why should we also refrain from labeling others with positive terms? Why should we spend so much time teaching our children how to use this super-power we call language for positive impact, and why is it so tempting and so easy to get it wrong? If we unpack it a bit, the wisdom in this Biblical and Rabbinic tradition is truly profound.

First, human life revolves around family and social relationships. Keeping up to date on the constantly changing social dynamics in our lives is one of the primary uses for language. Most of us spend a lot of our speaking time in conversations about the people we know – telling stories, exchanging information and conjecture, and also passing judgment. The information we share and learn keeps us connected to those in our networks. Of course, technology has changed this game in major ways, beginning with long-distance relationships conducted via paper & ink, moving to conversations transmitted by phone line, and now online social media.

Keeping track of those relationships is a heavy cognitive load – most people can’t go far beyond 150-250 real connections. So what do we do? The human thing – use a shortcut or rule of thumb to lighten the load. If we can categorize people into those that are like us (in-group) and those are not (out-group), we can use stereotypes and best guesses to predict and track behavior outside of our limited close circles. Social psychology confirms that we are born with cognitive biases of all sorts, among them the tendency to ascribe characteristics based on limited information to whole groups of people with whom we are less familiar (out-groups) – this is at the heart of racial prejudice, for example. We don’t do this (as much) for groups with whom we personally identify, because we know from personal experience that inside our groups people vary widely. We just don’t extend the courtesy of that knowledge to out-groups as easily, because our brains are not built that way, and instead we throw someone into a category in order to make some basic predictions.

So we tend to label. That hurts, because it reduces a complex human with a divine spark to a small thing. Nerd. Jock. Cool. Pretty. Is that how their parents think of them? How their close friends know them? How they think of themselves? Does it describe all the endlessly dynamic aspects of their inner lives? Of course not. So despite our efficient tendencies, we have to try our best not to do that.

In their wisdom, our texts provide some means for engaging in practices that defeat these destructive linguistic tendencies. First, don’t talk about other people. Second, don’t listen to someone who is talking about other people. Third, try to get them to stop. All that ink was spilled because every single one of us possesses this ridiculously powerful ability to impact the people around us for good or ill. We don’t need a license or degree to get this ability – it is built in. So we spend valuable time training ourselves and our children in the right ways to use our tongues, because we know that words are like arrows – once they are released they will surely hit something. Instead of firing arrows haphazardly, or without any sense of control, we all need to practice carefully aiming our words so that at least most of the time they build, instead of break, our precious relationships.

Shabbat Shalom,