Asked what a Jew should do in order to grow spiritually, the Gaon of Vilna responded that there should be two areas of emphasis: the study of Torah and the guarding of one’s speech. The former provides us with the intellectual and moral framework of G-d’s system – the values of Torah – and the latter, so overlooked today even by Jews who consider themselves observant, is an essential method of implementing those values and measuring one’s moral progress. But Shemirat Halashon (guarding one’s speech) involves so much more than eschewing gossip, tale-bearing and the like; it requires monitoring one’s speech to avoid the obscene, the lascivious, the offensive, and the foolish. And that is a fundamental obligation of every Jew and a staple of the preparatory month of Elul.
We should learn to control our speech. Problems arise when external controls are enforced, especially when those restraints are not intended to refine our character but rather to promote an agenda and upend the traditional value system of the Torah.
Case in point: there are certain words that are now rightfully taboo in society, known euphemistically as the E-word, the G-word, the K-word, the N-word, and probably one for every other letter of the alphabet. They occasionally even bring offense to the privileged victims in today’s society. But for the life of me, I cannot fathom why certain words are permitted to certain groups and prohibited to others. Many blacks, for example, routinely use the N-word but take great offense when others use it. That is puzzling.
Can a word be situationally offensive? That is to say, repugnant when uttered by some speakers but innocuous, even funny, when uttered by others? I find that hard to accept. Truth be told, I’m from the generation of “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never harm me” generation, so I have never been offended by anything anyone has said to me. I adopt the “who cares”? attitude, and brush it, and the speaker, off. I have never had a slur make the slightest impact on me.
These days, of course, the use of some words will send otherwise grown people running for their safe spaces, if they don’t run first to social media, complaining about micro-aggressions and other puerile, pseudo-psychological fabrications.
I am not endorsing or encouraging the use of any odious, hateful or unpleasant language, and language does evolve from generation to generation. In fact, I oppose it strongly. But I do wonder how it came about that the same word can be tasteful or distasteful depending on the color of one’s skin, the religion one professes, or the nationality to which one subscribes? It is interesting that the vulgarities once shunned on television or in polite society are now voiced regularly in public and broadcast, especially among the politicians and athletes, and replaced by a new set of forbidden words coined by a cadre of scathing, and not always sincere, scolds. Only that the new words are not universally forbidden, just to some people. How did that come about?
It recalls the variety of ways in which African-Americans have been referred to – none inherently impolite or meant as an affront – even during my lifetime, with changes demanded every two decades or so. Imagine if Jews woke up one day and insisted on being called Hebrews, and then Mosaic’s, and then Israelites, and we kept adjusting our designation of choice based on … nothing really. When I was younger, referring to a black as a “colored person” was insulting, the NAACP notwithstanding. But how is the disfavored “colored person” different from today’s favored “person of color”? It is ridiculous. If anything the latter is more impertinent, as if the “color” is the essence and the “person” is the accidence and the adjective. I choose to use neither expression as both attempt to define a human being by something relatively inconsequential. So how do these things come about?
I wish I could believe they came about because of a sincere attempt to show sensitivity, kindness, brotherhood and friendship. The African-American is far from the only group that frequently changes its reference of choice, but it all comes down to one quest: the desire for power. When you control someone’s speech, you are not far from controlling their ideas, their actions and their values. These unwritten speech codes have emerged from the naked pursuit of power and thus provide a useful club to whack or intimidate non-conformists into silence or infamy.
Thus Ilhan Omar and company attempt to immunize themselves for their patent Jew hatred by attributing any criticism of them, not to their abhorrent ideas but to their skin color. Has anyone given white Jew haters a pass? Not to my knowledge. So what does skin color have to do with anything? The accusation of “racist!” has lost its potency because it is used as a shield against legitimate criticism and a tool to gain power. It is as if one is not allowed to judge the content of their character because of the color of their skin, a new take on Reverend King’s ringing declaration.
Similarly, anyone who opposes same-sex marriage or deems homosexual conduct a sin (like, for example, any Jew who is faithful to the Torah) is automatically tarred with being homophobic. The discussion is over (over!), an odd assertion for those who insist that every controversial issue and even many sins be re-evaluated in the context of “starting a conversation.” (Incidentally, I have found that people who want to have “conversations” on these matters invariably want to subject their audiences to their monologues that resemble diatribes. Once upon a time, conversations were reciprocal expressions of thought.)
Similarly, anyone who even alludes to a connection between Islam and terror when a Muslim commits a terrorist act is guilty of Islamophobia. For sure, this accusation is not meant to persuade or reason but to embarrass and intimidate, but such has become the norm of public discourse. The effect is to send truth-seekers underground while the great majority succumb to the prevailing dogma or are expelled from the society of the decent and cowardly.
Some jurisdictions have banned the use of the word “convict” to refer to…convicts, much like the Obama administration eschewed the word “terror” in favor of “man-made disaster.” Even Major League baseball surrendered – changing its “disabled list” to the “injured list,” cowing to the demands of the disabled but apparently insensitive to the lobby of the injured. The list was not a slight to the disabled; these players are disabled. That is why they are on the list.
This is political correctness run amok but the ramifications are broad.
Note how the inability to articulate certain ideas will in due course be reflected in the prevailing culture. It will literally change a society’s value system. And it will certainly undercut any notion of objective truth. Note further how the suppression of speech and thought as an expression of power and control has engendered the fanciful idea that there are multiple truths or no single truth, that truth is not an absolute but simply an expression of one’s personal narrative.
That is not normal (which is, by the way, another word said to cause grievous offense today), it is not healthy for a society, and it is clearly undesirable for Jews who reflect repeatedly on G-d’s “truth” in our prayers and studies. Ultimately, this speech control is nothing less than bullying, and the scolds are bullies who have been given a pulpit in an age when the ease of instant communication, and its relative anonymity, has given license to too many people to become nasty, spiteful and malicious, which is just one small step short of violent.
We would be wise to adopt the Vilna Gaon’s emphases, especially regarding our speech – to speak pleasantly, disagree amicably, and interact amiably with all human beings. The only controls on our speech should come from the propriety of Torah and our never-ending quest to be better people. It should not come from brazen, aggressive outsiders, nor should we ever have to stifle the true ideas and values of Torah in order to comply with the ever-shifting mores of the agenda-driven nags.