Friday, July 3, 2015

Political Correctness: Boat People, Balaam and Muslims

The objection to political correctness is often used to justify insensitive, divisive and destructive speech. A man approached me this week at the Synagogue to say he supports the relentless, harsh rhetoric in the media and by some of our politicians about Muslims and terrorism because he doesn’t believe in political correctness. I disagree. While political correctness should not be allowed to stifle purposeful debate or criticism of specific people who do wrong, speech that generalises or disproportionately emphasises the negative, is unjust and irresponsible.

Elizabeth Ban, a giant spirit who passed away last week, facilitated dialogue between Jews and Muslims. This helped people in both communities develop a more realistic as well as positive understanding of each other.

Elizabeth had one last task she wanted to accomplish before she died. She sought to change the conversation about asylum seekers in the Sydney Jewish community. She made a good start by initiating an event at which 60 members of the community connected with asylum seekers (1). The following joke might help continue her mission: Dark- skinned young comedian, Suren Jayemanne, gets asked if he is a “boat person”? No, he replies, I am a car person actually. I’m really into cars, I hate sailing. It reminds me of the 7 months it took me to get to Australia… A pause, a little shock, and then everyone laughed: the “othering” term, ‘boat person’, is made to sound ridiculous.

The danger of negative speech plays out in our Torah reading (2). A man named Balaam faced a dramatic and successful attempt, involving a talking ass (3), an angel and God himself, to silence him. 

The colourful story begins with the one-eyed (4) sorcerer, Balaam, being asked to curse the Jews. While Balaam is on his way to do this, an angel is sent to stop him, he is reprimanded by his donkey, and finally God, Himself, puts words in his mouth that force him to bless and praise the Jews instead of cursing them.

The story is puzzling. Why would it have mattered if Balaam cursed the Jews?! Surely, only God decides if curses can have any impact (5).

There are four ways to think about this, all useful.

a) The impact of the curses would have caused distress to the target of the curses. “People then and now are impressed by sorcerers. The Israelites in those times, particularly the women and children (6), would have been greatly affected by the maledictions of such a renowned sorcerer (7)”. The impact on the Muslim community, particularly the young people, of being continually demonised, is substantial, unjust and unhelpful.  

b) The impact of the curses, had they been allowed to be spoken, would have been to embolden the enemies of the Jews (8). Again, this has relevance. The relentless, harsh rhetoric by politicians and the media encourages citizens who harbour prejudice, to express it both verbally and physically. In the case of asylum seekers, it reinforces prejudice and antipathy to the “boat people”.

c) Words have a spiritual, self-fulfilling impact. Negative speech can elicit negative behaviour from the targeted person, while praise strengthens the positive elements and potential in the person being spoken about (9).

d) At the literal level, our tradition clearly sees the prevention of the curses as being a protective and loving act by God for the Jewish people. “But the Lord, your God, did not want to listen to Balaam. So the Lord, your God, transformed the curse into a blessing for you, because the Lord, your God, loves you” (10).

Words matter. There are times when circumstances legitimately call for criticism of specific or even systemic problems and the people or groups responsible for these problems. Serious debate between philosophies, world views and even faiths can serve to tease out the truth, and this requires disregarding political correctness. However, often, negative speech serves no legitimate purpose while being quite destructive. If one has nothing nice to say, it might be time to “open both eyes” to see the full picture of both the admirable qualities alongside the faults, rather than seeking to verbally destroy like a “one- eyed” Balaam.


2)    Numbers 22-25
3)    Ralbag suggests that the whole encounter between Balaam and his donkey was a dream
4)    Talmud Sanhedrin 105a, states that Balaam was blind in one eye
5)    Ralbag
6)    The sexist implication in this explanation needs to be seen in the context of the time, centuries ago, when this was written.
7)    Ibn Kaspi, Joseph, Tirat Kesef, cited in Lebovitz, N, Studies in Bamidbar
8)    Abarbanel
9)    The Lubavitcher Rebbe
10)    Deuteronomy 23:6

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