How do the rules of Lashon Hara apply to the blogosphere?
Recently, I was the victim of Lashon Hara (aka slander or gossip), perpetrated by people very close to me. It is all still so fresh that the hurt and betrayal makes my heart ache.
The root of the Lashon Hara was about a blog post I hadwritten. The post was about me and not them. (Let’s face it, when a blogger blogs a blog, more often than not they’re going to be discussing their favorite subject: themselves). Somehow the blog post I wrote about my anxieties leading into Thanksgiving was misinterpreted as an attack against an untouchably sacred family event. Instead of calling me to discuss the matter, it was discussed with everyone but me. One of the excuses for them believing it was OK to discuss the matter with others is that as a blogger of Lashon Hara, I had it coming. Could they be right? When I blog about my personal feelings, experiences, and beliefs, and these involve other people, is that a form of Lashon Hara?
I blog about my life openly, and I don’t live in a bubble. My life includes my husband, son, parents, in-laws, and other friends and family. Invariably, some of my blog posts will involve them. For some people, I over-share; they find it offensive and crude to air “dirty laundry” in public. Yet with only a few exceptions, I refer vaguely to people and am very careful to protect the privacy of others. My husband and I review and edit everything I write multiple times to ensure there is nothing offensive to a family member or friend. I am not a muckraking journalist. I don’t care to further my writing career by exposing people’s secrets and scandalmongering. Quite the opposite: I routinely sanitize, dilute, and omit facts to protect my close relationships. If anything inflammatory makes it through my filters, then that means I am seriously pissed.
In spite of my empathy for other people’s feelings and employing my husband to act as a fact-checker and second set of eyes, people have managed to be offended by blog posts that I thought were completely innocuous. How am I supposed to write anything at all if I take into consideration everyone's hypersensitivities? It’s like trying to cook for a bunch of picky eaters – only something bland and boring is going to be acceptable to everyone….if at all.
Judaism talks about Lashon Hara in great detail. In fact, there is a whole work, the Chafetz Chaim, dedicated to nothing but this topic. It just goes to show that the subject is not so cut and dry. Like so much in our rich and complex religion, it is open to interpretation. For instance, Leviticus 19:16 states, “Thou shalt not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people; neither shalt thou stand idly by the blood of thy neighbor”. I am no rabbi, but I think this verse draws a distinction between bearing tales – gossip and slander – from bearing witness – providing testimony that furthers the cause of justice, even though it may damage another person’s reputation. Interestingly, something can be considered Lashon Hara regardless of its veracity, opaqueness, or intent. In other words, whether my words are fact or fiction; direct or vague; or well-meaning or malicious, they can be construed as Lashon Hara all the same. By this strict definition, the only morally excusable argument I can make to publish my blog is whether or not the good -- bearing witness -- outweighs the bad – bearing tales.
Does the bearing witness exception to Lashon Hara apply to blogging? I like to think so. Blogging about our struggles, stories, experiences, and questions brings us closer together, advances our common understanding, and gives us all an opportunity to support each other and learn from one another. When I wrote about my in-laws counseling my husband to leave me over a blog post, I received a tremendous amount of emails from readers with their own stories of family strife. By sharing their stories, they offered wisdom, counsel, and the kindest words of support. I know that if I received 30 emails there must have been ten times as many people out there who could relate to my blog. While part of me wanted to write about my in-laws as an act of revenge, I ultimately didn’t want my article to be exhibitionist or incendiary – I wrote it to break the silence about a topic that is too important to remain a taboo. I sincerely hope that I made a difference in other people’s lives by showing that whatever they are going through, they are not alone.
Beyond a Jewish argument in defense of blogging, there’s a secular one, too. Shouldn’t we all be striving for more honesty and transparency in our lives? When I write something on my blog, it is up there for everyone to see. There is no artifice, two-facedness, or skullduggery. If I happen to offend someone publicly, then they know exactly what I have said and to whom. By contrast, when someone gossips about you behind your back, you don’t know what they’ve said, to whom, or for how long they’ve been saying it. It’s very difficult to defend your reputation when it’s being secretly undermined.
I don’t think it’s right to use a blog as a vehicle for ad hominem attacks, and I am committed to never doing it. Nevertheless, people think that I have. Just because others feel offended by what I wrote about them, does that mean I defamed them? Who is the arbiter of what is and is not slander? If it is in the eye of the beholder, do I give everyone around me the power to veto what I write? If I take into consideration everyone’s personal filters when I blog, I would be left with a blank page. But there are no universal lines to color in when blogging – there is no “acceptable” and “unacceptable” regions. The world has changed and with Twitter, Facebook and blogosphere, there really are no lines any more. People share everything. You may not like it, but that is the way it is. Yet as a Jewish blogger, I hold myself to a higher standard. Do I censor, sanitize, and filter myself even more and become an inauthentic conformist? Do I acknowledge the futility of trying to please everyone all of the time and just stop blogging? Or do I press on and live with the risk of being misunderstood and maligned by those around me? Going forward, I will be ever more conscientious to avoid Lashon Hara as best I can…although I may not always succeed. And as much as others may want to silence my voice by invoking Lashon Hara, I will continue to blog, learn from my mistakes, and bear witness to my life.