A blog series on lashon hara (“evil tongue / evil speech”), in multiple parts.
One of my favorite stories to tell about my husband (even though it took place decades before I met him) is about when he met someone new in the music community in Charlottesville, where he was playing gigs after graduating college:
Guy: [introduces himself]
Michael: Hi, I’m Michael.
Guy: You’re not Michael Levine, are you?
Michael [pause]: …. no…?
Guy: Good, ‘cause I heard that guy’s a real jerk.
The funny part is, of course, that the guy is in fact speaking with Michael Levine, who instinctively denies it in this context.
It is also amusing to learn what Michael actually did to generate these rumors, particularly if you know him. Apparently, “Michael Levine” had MCed an open mic night but wouldn’t let anybody play; he just played himself the whole time. How rude! But as Michael told me, no one signed up on that open mic; he kept asking between each song if anyone wanted to play, and no one did, so he kept playing.
We find this story endearing because Michael did not (at least to his knowledge) suffer harm from it. What happened next was that at some point he disclosed his true identity to the other guy, and they had a good laugh. Nobody ever thought about this misperception much again except for amusement among those who know and love Michael.
Still, you have to wonder… how did a dead open mic night turn into “that guy’s a real jerk,” such that someone who didn’t attend the open mic night in question was willing to tell a complete stranger so? After having “confirmed” that he was not speaking to Michael Levine, this person effectively reissued the same warning he’d been given: “stay away from Michael Levine.”
And what do complete strangers do when warned to stay away from someone they don’t know, for any reason? Perhaps nothing at the conscious level. Certainly nothing they feel guilty about. Maybe they don’t go out of their way to consider him for gigs, or flip right by when they see an ad for a show of his. At an unconscious level, they may have developed a deeper negative association with him–any generalized bad vibe would have resonated as valid to someone with no positive experiences about Michael to contradict it. They might even, as happened here, instinctively associate the name “Michael” with this nebulous warning to stay away from Michael Levine. In this case, the association was so reflexive that the guy just blurted it out when someone introduced himself as “Michael.”
It’s unlikely this local rumor damaged Michael’s attempts to launch a music career in Charlottesville in the 1990s, though, I suppose we can never know for sure. And might this scenario have played out differently today, when communications have gone online and we have global social media networks?
Such is the power of lashon hara, “evil tongue/speech.”
Jewish law does not underestimate it and neither should we.
Part 2 will unpack the Jewish texts; let’s see if we can ascertain some guidance to apply to the “evil speech” to which we are all constantly exposed on social media networks, news feed algorithms, and more.