Fox news commentator Glenn Beck accused financier and Holocaust survivor George Soros of "sending Jews to the death camps" as a teenager without any factual basis. As Jews, we struggle to honor the memories of those who perished, and to ensure such atrocities never happen again. As Americans, we honor and uphold the right to free speech of every person, generally no matter how wrong, stupid, or hateful it may be. How and where should we draw the line between Holocaust denial and revisionism, and political attacks on a controversial figure as a form of expression? How do we balance these two important values?
I'm not actually sure this is a Jewish question, so much as an American one. For one thing, the value of free speech is not a Jewish value-- the laws of slander, for only one example, tell us that we are not allowed to simply say anything that may come to mind. Similarly, we are not allowed to speakfully hurtfully to or about another person; even if that person is an evildoer who needs to be upbraided publicly (because they have already rejected private, respectful admonishment), the most we can do is declare their evils and make clear that those actions should earn the evildoer public scorn for as long as he or she adheres to those evil ways. So, from a Jewish perspective, there would seem little or no excuse for Glenn Beck using such vitriol against George Soros (unless he thinks that, by doing so, people will avoid Soros' evil in the future). But he'd only be allowed to do even that if he had first remonstrated with Soros in private, to find that Soros was unrepentant and unchanging.
From a Jewish perspective, then, this whole discussion does not get off the ground-- vitriol, whether from a left or right viewpoint, is almost always prohibited. Even as Americans, though, the question seems to me to misunderstand the difference between freedom of speech and propriety of all speech. We may choose, as a legal matter, not to legislate against certain forms of speech, but that does not mean we need to either condone or tolerate it. If we, as a culture and a society, made clear that we would not accept such speech-- if, for example, all those offended by Glenn Beck now and forever shut him and those who quote him from polite company until such time as he apologizes for his offensive speech, and did so for all those who have contributed to the deterioration of our public square-- there would be much less of it. It is not the ideal of free speech that lets Glenn Beck (and those like him, on either side of the political aisle) flourish, it is the avid following they develop. It is not laws that are always supposed to shape societies values, it is their values. What is our value about how we speak to each other, and how do we demonstrate our adamant refusal to accept certain kinds of behavior?
Freedom of speech is a crucial part of a free society. However, it comes with limits, responsibilities and obligations. In one US Supreme Court Decision we are famously told one is not permitted to shout "fire" in a crowded public arena where this no fire - all freedoms require limitations for societies to function.
However, we witness tremendous slander both personal and communal from many sources in the media, include Glenn Beck's comments. Gossip has become a "column" in newspapers across the country. We are so addicted to this type of information we have become thirsty for it but it is dangerous and insidious and certainly problematic on ethical and religious level.
In fact the Torah does deal with the evils of Lashon Ha'Rah (evil speech) and bids us not to speak about other human beings. the Talmud even goes so far as to say even when our words might be positive we shouldn't utter them. Many of us, of course know that snide and sarcastic remarks even when true can be just as painful as words of untruth. The rabbis in this way understood the problem of free speech without any strictures or limits.
A great effort was made, and is still being made, in the Jewish world to speak in an acceptable and refined holy fashion. There is no room for slander in Jewish life. The expose, whether oral or in print, usually leaves the speaker more exposed than the victim. Our rabbis taught us that lashon hara "kills" three victims - the speaker, the listen- er, and the subject of the conversation. Uninhibited speech leads to bad consequences.
In fact the quality of our speech is exactly what distinguishes us from other animals in the animal kingdom, for it represents our capacity for intellectual capability. Judaism always has taught that this characteristic is a holy gift from Go. We should always work toward using it for good and not evil. Gossip, muckraking, slander, and cynical language all fly in the face of the purpose of this holy gift of speech. Even when one is speaking the truth, one is cautioned to avoid the pitfalls of lashon hara, for unlike the case of a libel action, truth alone is not a sufficient cause for speaking about others. Perhaps these words and guidelines of the tradition can help you draw the conclusion about Glenn Beck's harmful words and the words of others.
Glenn Beck is a major source of misinformation. This is not the first area in which he has has fouled the airwaves. Unfortunately, the First Amendment to the Constitution gives him this right. One way of working to reduce his influence would be to create an organized campaign to motivate the FCC to restore its Fairness Doctrine, which states that holders of broadcast licenses must act both to present controversial issues of public importance and to do so in a manner that was, in the Commission's view, honest, equitable and balanced.
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