Thereâ€™s a lot of hate speech flying around these days considered to be standard rhetoric for an upcoming Presidential election. The Democrats (via their SuperPACS and minions) have called Mitt Romney a felon, a murderer and a racist while Republicans (via their SuperPACS and minions) have called ObamaÂ a Muslim president who hates farming, hates the military and hates the U.S.
It seems differences of opinion or policy are no longer sufficient grounds for debate. Now, its personal. Not only is it personal, but the opponent isnâ€™t just in disagreement he (or she) is wrong, bad and often just plain evil. While personal, political attacks arenâ€™t new (you can read some pretty mean-spirited exchanges between Thomas Jefferson and James Madison) it appears that weâ€™ve reached a new low. Now it doesnâ€™t even matter if theyâ€™re true.
So what lessons may there be out there for us regarding hate speech? Iâ€™d say the Bible is a good enough place to start.
There are two mitzvot in the Torah that specifically address improper speech: â€œThou shalt not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy peopleâ€ (Lev. 19:16), and â€œye shall not wrong one anotherâ€ (Lev. 25:17, which according to tradition refers to wronging a person with speech). In fact, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement in Judaism, of the 43 sins specified in the communal confessional prayer, 11 are sins committed through speech.
How we use words must be pretty important since God apparently wanted to be heard on the topic. And, yet, we continue to be reckless and unconscious when we speak.
A war of words is a war none-the-less. As long as we choose to communicate in this manner (or remain silent while others do) we continue to support the foundation for wars of a greater magnitude. After all, a war of words is simply the first step taken (the microcosm) towards the final destination (the macrocosm): war that actually kills.
In case you think this is an overblown and exaggerated conclusion, or too great a leap from a war of words between individuals to wars between cultures or nations, allow me one final spiritual reference.
In the Torah, the gravest of speech-related sins is tale-bearing or lashon ha-ra (literally, “the evil tongue”), which involves discrediting a person or saying negative things about a person, even if those negative things are true. In fact, true statements are even more damaging than false ones, because you can’t defend yourself by disproving the negative statement if it’s true! Some sources indicate that lashon ha-ra is equal in seriousness to murder, idol worship, and incest/adultery (the only three sins that you may not violate even to save a life.
Letâ€™s evaluate this campaign season, and the candidates in particular, by their lack of evil speech. Â Letâ€™s give them the message that the last one standing with the electorate will not be the one who perpetuates the hate, but rather the one who promotes the highest good.