Free Speech vs Good Speech

Women and women’s rights have received a lot of attention in politics and media in recent weeks.  March is Women’s History Month – a time to celebrate the contributions of women in the USA, particularly contributions to social and economic justice, and women’s rights.  How ironic, therefore, that the beginning of March saw a debacle over women’s freedoms to make personal and moral choices about their own bodies.  We saw women being silenced through their absence from important conversations taking place in congressional committees, and we heard Rush Limbaugh using crass language to dismiss the perspective of one young, brave woman who offered her opinion.

I know there are many perspectives on the issues themselves.  But I am deeply concerned by the tone of the conversation, and what appears to be an increasing inability to engage in respectful discourse.

This past week, I was talking with a group of students at my congregation about two different ways of thinking about the power of speech.  On the one hand is the US Constitution, guaranteeing the right to free speech.  This is a core American value, and my students were all able to express the importance of this legal construct intelligently and articulately – our middle schools are teaching them well.

On the other hand, we explored some Jewish values and teachings on the subject of lashon hara.  Literally meaning ‘evil tongue’, the term is often used to talk about the negative impacts of gossip, but the teachings apply to much more than that.  Jewish wisdom sees speech as such a powerful tool that even saying something positive about someone should be done with great care (it may have a negative impact, such as stirring up feelings of jealousy in someone else).  That might seem extreme, but it is indicative of how strongly the tradition feels we should guard our tongue and try to always speak from the highest place possible.

At our Rabbis Without Borders alumni retreat at the end of last month, we engaged in an exercise where we took issues in the public realm where we felt strongly one way, and were required to make a persuasive argument for the other side.  It was a powerful exercise in which we were able to see the validity of another perspective.  I highly recommend trying it – it becomes much more difficult to demonize ‘the other side’ when we recognize that they do not come from a place of malice, but have another way of seeing things that also contain some truths.

It is true and important that the first amendment protects the right to free speech.  But just because we can say it, doesn’t mean that we should say it.  Our moral values point to a higher standard, and it is also good and true to hold those who speak in the public arena to this higher standard.  They set the tone for the rest of us.

A version of this article was first published in the Op-Ed pages of The Bridgeport News, Bridgeport CT on March 16, 2012

Posted on March 21, 2012

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