Negative Campaigns: Poison to the Soul

Negative Campaigns: Poison to the Soul


  • In this time of political brinkmanship, it is common for people to speak ill of each other. Candidates speak ill of their competitors and their supporters speak ill of the other “team.” I often compare political seasons to the kind of divorce talk one hears in the heat of battle. We can only hope that time heals, and that people will settle down and concentrate on their own spiritual work rather than identifying the flaws in others.  
  • But there are people who hold onto that pattern, who make it a way of life, and who poison the air around them with a continuous spoken and unspoken stream of negativity about their hate of others. These people poison their souls and bring down the listener. There is a very good book called Divorce Poison, that identifies the pattern. It appears in the workplace, politics and even (especially) in religious congregations.  
  • There are of course many ways of doing damage but the meaning is always clear. The reading for this week’s Torah portion tells us that speaking negatively about others is actually worse than murder. This contradiction to what we intuitively know about speech and murder is explained by the reference to negah, in which the soul of the speaker is so damaged that they actually develop a skin disease, they are exiled by the community and treated, in the traditional sense, as a lepor. In fact, the tradition might be traced back to leprosy when mankind did not understand disease, and assumed that anything so ghastly must have been brought on by the presence of evil in the person. 
  • I take this opportunity to address the aspect of campaign rhetoric because it is always elevated by the media to the point where nearly everyone knows about the latest jab. The constant rebroadcast of these jabs reinforces this behavior in our daily lives and serves as the worst kind of negative example for our children.  
  • In politics, it disgusts the voters but it also influences them. We are all susceptible to hearing negative things about someone and then inwardly wondering or assuming that it might be true. This is why what comes out of our lips and what we listen to is so important. It has an effect. They are not “just words.” They hurt and they cause damage not only to the speaker and his/her target but to to the rest of us as well. The fact that it is so powerful does not mean that it should be used as an acceptable tool. A gun is powerful but we can all agree that the random or continuous use of it is not a good thing.  
  • In our American politics nothing is more apparent than the fact that what happens here is with the consent of the governed, as stated in our Declaration of Independence. So when we hear negative remarks from a candidate, they do so, because they have our consent to do so. My suggestion is that we withdraw our consent to negative campaigning in and out of politics and that we avoid or confront those people who demonstrate their willingness to use this hateful and dangerous tool.  
  • The passage below is taken from Tazria (Leviticus 12-13)  
  • Murderous Speech The affliction of tzara’at comes primarily as a result of loshon hara – talking badly about others. The Sages make an amazing statement in the Talmud. They say that to speak negatively about another person is worse than murder. I think everyone would agree that it is terrible to speak negatively about another person. But can it possibly be worse than killing a person? I, for one, would much rather that someone spoke negatively about me than killed me. In order to understand, we must think a little more deeply about what the Sages are saying. They do not mean that loshon hara is worse than murder in a general sense. Obviously, murder is worse, as proven by the fact that one is obligated to die rather than commit murder, which is not the case with loshon hara. What the Sages mean is that a specific evil is inherent within the transgression of loshon hara, that does not exist within murder. What is it? Generally when a person kills another, there is a motive – jealousy, money, power, passion. There is a tangible benefit to the murderer and that is why s/he does it. Obviously, that doesn’t make it right. It is evil, but in some sense an explainable evil. Were the murderer to be able to achieve the same result without killing, he would probably do so. Of course there are insane psychopaths who kill for fun, but for the most part people who kill would prefer another way. That makes it no less evil, just more understandable. When someone speaks badly of someone else, however, generally there is no motive, no reason and no tangible gain. It benefits you in no way. You enjoy the evil itself; the negativity, the cruelness and the sense of power that it brings. You also enjoy other people listening to (and enjoying) your evil; it takes two to tango. As such, not only do you enjoy the evil, you drag others down with you. And one final difference: The one who murders will not learn to enjoy murder and want to do it again. But the one who speaks loshon hara will do so again and again and again. The more you do it, the more it becomes a part of you. While the results of murder may be worse for the victim, the long-term results of negative speech are much worse for the one who speaks it. The shock of having murdered might spur you to change. Speaking loshon hara, on the other hand, will just drag you further and further into the quagmire of petty mediocrity. Not only do you hurt another human being, you destroy your own soul in the process.

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