by Rabbi Steven Pruzansky
“The world only endures in the merit of those who restrain themselves (and do not respond) during times of strife” (Masechet Chulin 89a).
How quaint that must sound in modern times, especially in an era notably marked by acrimony, recriminations, libel, slander, gossip, name-calling and outright lies. Not responding to an insult, slur or accusation is considered foolhardy and unmanly, and tantamount to an admission of guilt. Similarly, the Torah’s injunction against lashon hara, speech – even if true – that tends to disparage the reputation of the subject in the eyes of the listener, is particularly eccentric these days, honored only in the breach thereof. We can and should try but even if we succeed, the culture is so awash in personal vilification that it is impossible to remain above the fray.
From “deplorables” to “losers” and everything in between, modern discourse has become so coarsened that there is no obvious way to reverse this onslaught, partly because it is also entertaining. Wikipedia specializes in underscoring and exaggerating peccadilloes, errors, misstatements, and the like that often results in a caricature of its subjects. Worse, it relies primarily on media accounts, which are often half-baked and half-witted attempts at furthering someone’s agenda, and occasionally will publish information without source or citation – in other words, totally made up or heard by A from B who read it somewhere.
Truth is the first casualty of war but truth itself has become just another version of a narrative. We tend to believe and propagate anything good about someone we like and anything bad about someone we don’t like; objective truth is not really relevant. This is perhaps the greatest failing of today’s advocacy journalism.
Take one recent example – a well known declaration by a prominent individual, debunked but still extant – and we will understand the dangers that abound.
The whole world knows that two years ago President Trump called “some” Nazis and white supremacists “very fine people.” Even Joe Biden referred to this in his campaign announcement. For this, the President was lambasted as a Jew-hater, a dog-whistler, and a closet neo-Nazi himself – all risible, tendentious and false accusations. But of course, he said no such thing, as those who listened to that press conference and read the transcript with an open mind and a clear eye can easily ascertain.
In the wake of the riots in Charlottesville, Virginia back in August 2016, Trump said this in response to a “journalist’s” question: “Excuse me, they didn’t put themselves down as neo-Nazis, and you had some very bad people in that group. But you also had people that were very fine people on both sides. You had people in that group – excuse me, excuse me, I saw the same pictures you did. You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”
Moments later, he added, “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and white nationalists because they should be condemned totally.”
How did that become “Trump supports Nazis, deems some of them very fine people?”
There were actually four groups in Charlottesville that fateful day: the two major groups represented people advocating for the removal of Confederate statues from the city parks and people protesting against the removal of Confederate statues from the city parks. Those were the two groups who had come to demonstrate and, indeed, there were “very fine people” on both sides. That debate is an especially vexing one, with cogent arguments on both sides that has been addressed here. The removal of General Lee’s and other Confederate statues has, as predicted, engendered the demand for the removal of statues of Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and even George Washington and other legendary American heroes. But we can whitewash all of history by erasing the memories of imperfect people because, after all, we are all imperfect. Christopher Columbus, Peter Stuyvesant and even Martin Luther King all had their sins and prejudices that could lead to their public expunction by the self-anointed League of Perfect People which sits in judgment of everyone.
I can see both sides without calling pro-statue people racists and anti-statue people troglodytes.
There were two other groups in Charlottesville that day – the white supremacists and their Antifa counterparts. Both sides came with hatred and violence and both were only tangentially related to the statue demonstrations. Thus, there were many people who supported removing the statues who were not associated with Antifa and many who opposed their removal who were not neo-Nazis.
It is clear that Trump referred to the first two groups as those containing “very fine people on both sides,” and not at all to the Antifa-White Nationalist rioters. So how were his remarks distorted to make it appear as if he was praising Nazis? How, indeed. It is because that suited the narrative of his enemies who assume the worst about him and find confirmation everywhere they wish.
Of course, the President often says colorful, off-color and regrettable things – but honesty dictates criticizing him for what he does say and not mangling what he did not say in order to further an agenda.
Nonetheless, all this reinforces another societal norm: if you have to explain, you have already lost. Leaders are admonished: “Sages, be careful with your words… (Avot 1:11). But that doesn’t give anyone a license to distort, disfigure, or twist someone’s words, propound them in the most negative light possible, or just lie about them. And there are dozens of such examples among public figures and even in our private lives, where the tendency to believe the worst about people is too accepted and further inquiries about the disparaging information are deemed unwarranted or unnecessary.
That this has become almost a sport further degrades our lives and compels us to adhere ever more closely to the norms of communication mandated by the Torah. But it also confirms the observation of the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho: “Don't waste your time with explanations: people only hear what they want to hear.”