The power of words in our political campaigns

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I am a student of words. Words are critical in my work and I use them carefully. Words have great impact, and I have experienced words that “burn in my brain” long after they have been uttered. Actions do speak louder than words, but words are often the gateway to actions.

I was an avid watcher of both the Democratic and Republican conventions and was struck by several politicians from both parties who used their entire speech to bash the opposing candidate. Nothing was said about what the party can do to move forward.

I have never seen this level of name-calling and character-bashing. This is not about taking sides, this is about the use and abuse of free speech that hurts all of us. The negative energy produced by this rhetoric delivers darkness and more negativity.

On the other hand, I was enlightened by several speeches at the conventions that brought me feelings of pride and joy and lifted me up. These talks centered on unity and working together. Personally, for me to feel hopeful, I have to know that there are concrete ways and actions to move us in a positive direction.

At Chabad.org, in an article titled “The Price of Free Speech,” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asks, “Why is the Torah so severe about lashon hara, branding it as one of the worst of sins? Partly this has deep roots in the Jewish understanding of God and the human condition. Judaism is less a religion of holy people and holy places than it is a religion of holy words.… One sign of how seriously Judaism takes this is the prayer we say at the end of every Amidah, at least three times a day: “My God, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from deceitful speech. To those who curse me let my soul be silent; may my soul be to all like the dust.”

Rabbi Sacks concludes, “Despite everything, however – despite the Torah’s prohibition of gossip, despite its stories about Joseph, Moses, Miriam and the spies, despite the unparalleled strictures against evil speech by the sages – lashon hara remained a problem throughout Jewish history, and still does today. Every leader is subject to it.”

We are fortunate to live in a country where we have freedom of speech. That is one of the hallmarks of freedom. But when it goes too far and speech becomes a weapon to demean, undermine and destroy, it hurts us all by dampening our spirit, and that is dangerous. Our spirit is what keeps us alive, thriving, and moving forward.

PATRICIA RASKIN hosts “The Patricia Raskin Show” on Saturdays at 4 p.m. on WPRO, 630 AM/99.7 FM. Raskin is a board member of Providence’s Temple Emanu-El.