Wednesday, August 5, 2020 -
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Cleaner speech in Colorado

The 30 days of “Clean Speech Colorado” officially came to an end on Nov. 30, but the work has just begun. So said Rabbi Raphael Leban in the series’ final video. One might even say it is a lifelong pursuit.

At the heart of the extraordinarily successful “Clean Speech Colorado,” convened by Rabbi Leban, was a simple message: Clean speech — that is, avoiding harmful or hurtful talk about others — leads to a better life. If adhered to, clean speech improves cross-community collaboration — evidenced superbly by the program itself — and, perhaps even more important, inter-personal relationships.

Lashon hara — “evil tongue” — is a social and communal scourge. Why? Because of its repercussions. A thread running throughout the series drove this home: consequences. Evil speech may be uttered in a moment, an offhand remark, a way to pass the time. But what are its consequences? If one asks that question, the harmful and hurtful talk may be stopped before it can cause damage — and it is almost certain that harmful or hurtful talk will cause damage.

As a media organization, we were most intrigued with the final third of the series, which dealt with the concept of “lashon hara le-to’elet,” when it is incumbent upon someone to speak lashon hara. A clear example is when a teacher must report suspicions of child abuse or someone who witnessed a crime may need to testify. These are damaging to the person being spoken about, but it is necessary in order to protect a victim from further harm.

We are confronted with this as a news reporting organization. Do we report about the rabbi or other Jewish leader accused of sexual abuse? If so, in how much detail? Do we report the indictment of a sitting Jewish prime minister?

These examples are real and will certainly cause harm to the person in question as well as his or her family. Yet, we report it. We must. It is a newspaper’s duty — much like a teacher’s — to report harmful behavior in order to help stop predators; help reverse a trend of mistreatment; and send a message to future predators that the world is watching.

However, this does not mean we are entitled to report any bad or questionable behavior of a public figure. The final third of “Clean Speech Colorado” set out very clear guidelines for “le-to’elet.” They read like journalism’s guiding principles:

• Is the information true?

• Is the behavior wrong?

• Did I speak to the offender first?

• Am I being completely accurate?

• Are my intentions pure?

• Will I cause even more harm [by not reporting this]?

• Did I try alternatives?

There are deep consequences to harmful and hurtful speech. How easy it is to tell ourselves that we’re doing it for the greater good. Maybe we are — but that can only be determined after exploring each of the above questions.

This is the section that resonated most strongly with us, but the curriculum contains so many talking points, from judging others favorably to lashon hara through body language.

Thank you, Clean Speech Colorado, for starting this important conversation among thousands of Colorado Jews and beyond.

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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