Anti-Black comments by Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles’ Clippers, have been heard and rejected far and wide. NBA commissioner Adam Silver defused the anger of players and coaches, the dismay of fans and withdrawals by Clippers sponsors by banning Sterling for life. But let’s consider another issue potentially more frightening than Sterling’s racist comments.
We gain some perspective with this week’s Torah portion, Emor (Speak), in the Book of Leviticus. In addition to key commandments relating to priests in the Temple and the food offerings they consume. Emor relates the story of a “half-Israelite” (Egyptian father), who fights with a full Israelite. The “half-Israelite” then profanes the name of God, although we don’t know what he says. God instructs Moses that the man is to be stoned to death, and the sentence is carried out.
The condemned man does not die for any act he performs. The fight is not an issue. Rather, his words prove offensive to the holiness of God and Israel. The Torah doesn’t reveal how many Israelites hear the condemned man profane God’s name, but he makes his statement publicly. His words could have incited some or even many in the Israelite camp to join him in rejecting God, thus his punishment.
There’s a parallel in Donald Sterling’s voiced rejection of African Americans and the firestorm that hit him. But the circumstances, God aside, also present serious differences. Sterling made his comments, wrong as they are, in private. It seems that only he and his girlfriend, with whom he spoke on the telephone, heard his remarks. It also seems that his girlfriend purposely recorded him, perhaps goaded him as they spoke then released the recording to embarrass him.
Let’s be honest. Sterling’s remarks were never intended to be made public or to sway anyone but his girlfriend. This should lead us to consider two ideas. First, hateful talk, even when private, can come back to haunt us. Second, we no longer enjoy any comprehensive freedom to express ourselves—including our prejudices. Who knows when we’re being recorded and by whom? And the means to air recorded comments abound. If private words are made public, we may be condemned not for what we’ve done but for what we’ve said. Our deepest feelings, misguided as they may be, can be used against us.
Are the thought police now out in force? If so, who has the right to determine which of our private utterances—even those we view as innocent or taken out of context—can be leveraged to take away our jobs and possessions not to mention our reputations?
I make no excuses for Donald Sterling. I also believe that Adam Silver did the right thing for the NBA. But someone recorded a private conversation without Sterling’s permission then used it against him. There’s something wrong about that.
The Rabbis cautioned against lashon hara—bad/evil speech or gossip. Their counsel is even more important today, in part because the Donald Sterling affair takes us towards, if not down, a slippery slope. Should Americans’ private statements condemn them not simply to disapproval or ridicule but also to some form of punishment? We as a nation say we revere free speech. Is this just words?
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