“Life and death are in the hands of the tongue.” – Proverbs 18:21
Judaism stresses the dangers and destructive nature of Lashon HaRa (evil speech). It is an egregious infraction that, when committed, has the potential to reap irreparable harm. Indeed, once a person has been defamed, it is nearly impossible for him to reclaim his good reputation. AISH offers a provocative article outlining the nuances of Lashon HaRa and ways we can avoid it.
I was reminded of this concept as I devoured Never Cry Wolf, by Farley Mowat. In it, Mowat chronicles his (fictionalized) experience living with the Arctic wolves during the early sixties. That summer proves instructive as he observes, unhindered, the lupine family of “Wolf House Bay”. He has been primed to believe “the wolf is a savage, powerful killer” (60). Yet, he quickly realizes (through his interactions with “George”, “Angeline”, “Uncle Albert”, and their wolf pups) that “the centuries-old concept of the wolf character was a palpable lie” (76).
George and Angeline prove to be devoted mates and attentive parents; Uncle Albert, a reliable care-taker. The writer describes their games of tag and practical jokes, their visits with friends, and their efforts to remain in control of their domain despite the sudden appearance of an unknown human.
Mowat struggles to reconcile what he knows through hearsay and what he experiences first hand. He recounts, ” I had wrestled with my devils… and [decided] …I would go open-minded into the lupine world and learn to see and know the wolves, not for what they were supposed to be, but for what they actually were” (77).
This shift is critical. Farley Mowat presents a man who makes the moral decision to renounce Lashon HaRa and see with objectivity the way of the wolf – this despite the pressures and stated bias of his superiors who sent him to report on the wolves’ ruthless killing of the caribou population. Though, through careful observation, he discovers that the “wolves of Wolf House Bay, and, by inference, all the Barren Land wolves who were raising families outside the summer caribou range, were living largely, if not almost entirely, on mice (107). Further, “the wolf never kills for fun… [and] contrary to yet another misconception, [he found] no valid evidence that wolves kill more than they can use… [In fact] a kill made during denning season is revisited time and again until the last ounce of meat has been stripped from it” (203).
This begs the question: What is killing the Arctic caribou?
A casual conversation with Mike, a trapper who hosts the researcher for a period of time during his sojourn in the Arctic, reveals that each trapper will “kill maybe two, three hundred [caribou], maybe more” (127). After some conservative calculations, Mowat estimates at least 112,000 of the deer are killed by local trappers yearly.
With further investigation, Mowat learns of the nefarious purpose of his superiors’ insistence of upholding the wolf’s savage reputation. Apparently, “the tourist bureau of the Provincial Government concerned had decided that Barren Land caribou would make an irresistible bait with which to lure rich trophy hunters up from the United States. Accordingly, a scheme was developed for the provision of fully organized ‘safaris’ in which parties of sportsmen would be flown into the sub-arctic, sometimes in Government owned planes, and, for thousands of dollars each, would be guaranteed a first-rate set of caribou antlers” (237). The resulting defamation of the wolf’s character has led to their decimated numbers and virtual extinction.
Our words have weight. Their power can build someone up or completely devastate him. In today’s polarized world, we would do well to avoid Lashon HaRa (both as a speaker and as a listener), because one never knows the true motivations of the speaker who seeks to create a negative impression. Our world literally depends on this.
This National Geographic video depicts what we stand to lose (2:42 begins the wolf segment). It is stunning.
*Photo Credit: http://arcticwolfproject.weebly.com/