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Elon Musk and Hateful Speech

Elon Musk has purchased Twitter and pledged to allow free speech within the limits of the law. Many people are upset about this and believe that any speech that makes someone feel uncomfortable should be curbed. They argue that unfettered speech on Twitter, will open the door to hateful speech. It will allow white racists to spout off in ways that trigger women, black people, and other disenfranchised groups like the LGBTQ community. They will be driven from social media because they will feel unsafe.

Do not be hateful in your heart is one of the first commandments that we read about in this week’s Torah portion. The Torah then goes on to say that we must love others as we love ourselves. This sets the bar rather high on avoiding hateful feelings and how much more so hateful actions and speech.

How can the Torah come along and tell us in the very same Torah portion that a man may not lay with a man as he would with a woman and that to do is an abomination? Is that not hateful speech? Don’t such words trigger people, especially disenfranchised people, and make them feel unsafe?

It is clear that the Torah does not see the contradiction, but how can that be? If such statements are likely to trigger disenfranchised victims, how can they be anything other than hateful speech?

The Fact, Not The Person
Allow me to introduce a concept that was once taken for granted, but has become somewhat of a novelty in the modern day. It is a subtle shift that can be difficult to spot but it is the underlying cause for the confusion with which we live today. This shift goes to the very heart of hatred. What is hatred?

The Left argues that rejecting a value that others might hold is hateful. But rejecting concepts is not the same as rejecting people. Rejecting people is hateful rejecting ideas is not hateful. Hateful speech means to say something that conveys hatred toward another. Do not hate another in your heart means to not harbor hatred to another. It doesn’t mean that we must approve of everything others do lest they be triggered. It is perfectly okay to state that something is forbidden even if others disagree.

Speech is only hateful when we spew hateful things about the person. If we personalize a doctrine and say, for example, that since gay intercourse is forbidden, all gay people are bad or hateful, we have crossed the line. That is hateful speech. But making a fact-based statement is a statement of fact, not a statement of hate.

It is not the most comfortable conversation to have. But we don’t avoid uncomfortable conversations just because they are uncomfortable. For example, we don’t avoid saying that Judaism forbids driving a car on Shabbat just because some people in the room drive on Shabbat. In fact, no one who drives on Shabbat would ever think to call this hateful speech. They would simply disagree and that would be the end of it.

The Need To Mature
It pains me to be so blunt, but the truth must be spoken. People today need to grow up. We have spent decades telling our children that they are perfect and can do anything they want. We told them that they are entitled to anything they want and all they need to do is ask.

Our intentions were good. We hoped to inculcate an optimistic sense of self and a healthy self-image. We knew that we were also engaging in some fantasy when we told them that they could be or do anything. We knew that part wasn’t true. Yet we hoped that as they matured, they would learn how to separate fact from fiction. They would take the positive message and discard the fantastical promises.

Sadly, for a good many of them that never happened. They grew up, as my friend likes to say, with a bellyful of confidence and no accomplishments to back it up. They live in a halo of entitlement and truly believe that the world owes them. They are uber sensitive and are triggered every time someone disagrees with them. They never place the onus on them to moderate their reaction. The onus is always on others to make it better. If it means that others must be silent to avoid triggering them, that is, of course, what others owe them. They hold the world hostage for their own purposes. This isn’t moral. It is infantile.

If they want to feel good about themselves, they should go out an accomplish something. If they want to feel better, they should go out and accomplish something better. Pummeling others into silence can only carry them so far. It is time to grow up.

But they forgot to grow up. And as they grow older, their attitude gains momentum. Today, feelings, rule the roost. Facts are no longer important. If tax laws trigger us and make us feel unsafe, we should be exempt from paying taxes. After all, taxes are just another way for powerful people to come after us and take our money. If my white skin color triggers someone, I am privileged and guilty irrespective of my personal background or circumstances. Facts don’t matter.

This subtle distinction has been so cleverly blurred that it is lost on many. No one wants to be hateful, and no one likes to be identified as hateful. When someone says with conviction that holding certain opinions renders us hateful and makes them feel unsafe, most people back away. They don’t want to be hateful, so they keep their opinions to themselves.

Yet, they know intuitively that something is wrong. It is hard for them to put their finger on exactly what is wrong, so let me do it for you. It is that you are not hateful when you espouse an opinion. You are only hateful when you speak hatefully about another. You can be friends with gay people even as you believe that their lifestyle is forbidden by G-d. Saying so is not hateful speech.

Clash of Freedoms
All this raises the question of where the future lies, which freedom will prevail? Will religious freedom prevail and allow us to profess our beliefs in public without fear of recrimination and consequence or will the freedom to not be triggered prevail?

This isn’t a new question. I asked it nearly twenty years ago when Canada legalized gay marriage. But today, the question takes on a whole new dimension. It is no longer about our freedom to not officiate at (or bake cakes for) gay weddings, it is about our freedom to express our beliefs. Soon it will be about our freedom to hold our beliefs. Are we inching closer to Soviet style dictatorship than we wish to admit?

Today, more than ever, it is important to remember that when someone disagrees with what we do or believe, they haven’t shot across the bows. They have not engaged in hateful speech; they have simply stated an opinion and we are free to state ours. We can disagree without being disagreeable.

Freedom of religion and freedom of speech need not be silenced. The silent majority need not be silenced. We can come together, and we can have friendly conversation. Not monolithic conversation where everyone is programmed to virtue signal and use politically correct language. But natural and honest conversation, open and vigorous conversation, and above all, friendly and respectful conversation.

I think we can do it. Do you?

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at www.innerstream.org
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