Daf Yomi At Beren: Political Correctness — The Talmudic Debate

By: Shayna Herszage  |  November 25, 2020
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By Shayna Herszage, Managing Editor

Over the past several decades, we’ve all been hearing the same societal complaint: “Everyone is too PC (politically correct) these days.” Society seems to frequently get caught straddling the line between being too forward and not being forward enough. This difficult balance is associated with an ongoing and often heated debate: should we err on the side of caution, or should we opt not to beat around the bush?

It may be surprising to learn that this question existed long before we did, but Tractate Pesachim 3a-3b in fact documents this very debate among the rabbis. On 3a, the Talmud states:

תַּנְיָא דְּבֵי רַבִּי יִשְׁמָעֵאל לְעוֹלָם יְסַפֵּר אָדָם בְּלָשׁוֹן נְקִיָּה

It was taught in the school of Rabbi Yishmael: A person should always converse [euphemistically] using clean language.”

This statement supports the idea that a person should speak in a more diplomatic, “politically correct” manner when discussing delicate topics, including those of an immodest, inappropriate or offensive nature. 

However, in 3b, a conflicting opinion arises from a group of other rabbis:

אָמַר רַב הוּנָא אָמַר רַב וְאָמְרִי לַהּ אָמַר רַב הוּנָא אָמַר רַב מִשּׁוּם רַבִּי מֵאִיר לְעוֹלָם יִשְׁנֶה אָדָם לְתַלְמִידוֹ דֶּרֶךְ קְצָרָה

“Rav Huna said that Rav said — and some say it was Rav Huna who said that Rav said in the name of Rabbi Meir: A person should always teach his student in a concise manner.”

According to this argument, if a person is able to learn more effectively from a more concise, forward statement, such a statement is preferred — even if it is perhaps considered taboo or politically incorrect.

Ultimately, the Talmudic passage concludes as follows:

וְכׇל הֵיכָא דְּכִי הֲדָדֵי נִינְהוּ מִשְׁתַּעֵי בִּלְשׁוֹן כָּבוֹד

“And anywhere that the phrases are equal, does the verse always speak employing [respectful] language.”

Thus, being concise is important, but being respectful is essential. If a concise phrase and a politically correct phrase are equally capable of communicating something, according to the decision of this section in Pesachim, the more politically correct phrase is preferred.

In support of this final point, the Talmud describes an interaction that took place between Rav and two of his students:

הָנְהוּ תְּרֵי תַלְמִידֵי דַּהֲווֹ יָתְבִי קַמֵּיהּ דְּרַב חַד אָמַר שַׁוִּיתִינַּן הַאי שְׁמַעְתָּא כְּדָבָר אַחֵר מְסַנְּקָן וְחַד אָמַר שַׁוִּיתִינַּן הַאי שְׁמַעְתָּא כִּגְדִי מְסַנְּקָן וְלָא אִישְׁתַּעִי רַב בַּהֲדֵי דְּהַאיְךְ

“There were these two students who were sitting before Rav and were weary from studying a complex issue. One of them said: This halakha [legal ruling] we are studying is rendering us as tired as a tired something else [a euphemism for a pig]. And the other one said: This halakha is rendering us as tired as a tired kid. Rav would not speak with that student who made reference to a pig, as one who speaks inappropriately is undoubtedly flawed in character.”

In the case of this anecdote, one student spoke in a disrespectful way. In order to emphasize the correlation between disrespectful language and disrespectful character, Rav refused to speak to this student.

Many people are divided on the notion of political correctness in speech and other forms of communication. This section of Tractate Pesachim, however, conveys a clear message: respectful language reflects respectful character and, conversely, disrespectful language is a reflection of disrespectful character — our words are microcosms of what we think, how we feel and who we are; therefore, if the same point can be made either in a way that is harsh or in a way that is kind, choose the route of being kind.

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