Chana Hughes

The coverage of the Nicola Bulley case is a tragic reminder of the power of gossip

Judaism contains many rules on 'bad speech', it's a shame the British press don't follow them


PRESTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 19: A police car blocks a road near the River Wyre in St Michael's on Wyre as a 'Missing' sign for Nicola Bulley adorns a telegraph pole in the foreground on February 19, 2023 in Preston, England. Police have been continuing to look for the missing woman, Nicola Bulley, 45, who disappeared while walking her dog along the banks of the River Wyre on Saturday, Jan 27. (Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

February 21, 2023 11:29

Right now, the world could really do with learning a thing or two from the Jews. A few weeks ago, Nicola Bulley disappeared without a trace while walking her dog along the riverside. This week her body was tragically found.

It is difficult to figure out which part is causing the family more pain: Bulley’s untimely death or the disturbing responses from the public, fuelled by the media.

Nicola’s story has attracted thousands of conspiracy theories and speculations about her private life. These have been implicitly encouraged by intense media scrutiny and paparazzi intrusion. If the thought of a missing young mother alone doesn’t make you cry, the way we, as a society, are allowing the case to be treated will. And I say ‘we’ because I mean ‘we’. All of us contribute to our social narrative about tolerating gossip.

Gossip isn’t a new invention but thanks to social media it can now spiral in seconds and cause more collateral damage than ever before. Communication has become a different, more powerful, wide-reaching medium. We need an updated cultural approach to the way we speak about other people. Because the old one isn’t any longer fit for purpose.

In Jewish thinking, many are familiar with the sin of lashon hara. Literally meaning ‘bad talk’, lashon hara refers to all true negative speech about other people. (If it is not true, it counts as lying rather than lashon hara.) But fewer realise that there are enough intricate laws about lashon hara to fill a book. These laws include whether a gesture counts as gossip (such as rolling your eyes) and criteria for when bad talk is actually necessary (such as warning a colleague about a dishonest business partner).

Pages are filled with hypothetical examples of when ‘Reuven’ speaks to ‘Shimon’ about ‘Levy’ and whether these conversations reach the threshold of negative speech or whether they are permitted.

You could say that the painstaking details about what constitutes gossip is over-regulated nitpicking and losing sight of the bigger picture. But let’s look at an alternative.

Messages in British society today tell us to ‘be kind’. How do they do this? They print the slogan on t-shirts that are mass-produced by children in sweatshops. Social media platforms avoid regulations in the name of free speech. Whole industries are built on finding and distributing gossip as widely as possible. Is this all kind? If not, what is? Is there any accountability if you’re ‘not kind’ unless it’s a criminal offence? Rarely do people think about or discuss how to be kinder or whether we are being kind enough. Or perhaps the message has become- be kind as long as you don’t miss any business opportunities by doing so.

The other day I walked past a primary school that prides itself on teaching ‘values-based education’. Values such as kindness, honesty and respect. But when the children leave primary school, and relationships start to matter more, who makes sure that they continue to learn about these values? In religious Jewish communities, it's not just the level of detail of the laws of speech that is remarkable. It's the importance of learning about those laws for both children and adults alike. It has become a custom for adults to review 2 laws of lashon hara every day. Others set aside one hour daily to be extra vigilant about only talking positively. Keeping up awareness of thoughtful speech takes continuous work.

I once taught the laws of lashon hara to a batmitzvah class. At the end, I gave out a selection of magazines and asked the girls to cross out all the sentences that would be classed as negative speech according to Halacha.

I watched as the girls crossed out line after line. There was not much left. It’s uncomfortable to think about the role of the media in high-profile cases because they only cater to us, their customers. Will the media be held accountable for cruelly exploiting the privacy of Bulley and her family? Or are they only giving us, the public, what we want to read?

If our response to gossip was half as shocking and disapproving as our reactions to politically incorrect language, how many more teenagers would we save from ending their own lives? I am of course not suggesting that the laws of lashon hara become legally binding in the UK. But the West has a lot to learn from the Jewish focus and value placed on every word and the way positive interpersonal behaviour is something expected from adults as well as children. There's so much to learn from how Jews speak. Let's learn it now before more lives are destroyed.

February 21, 2023 11:29

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