Imagine what the world would look like if the news media and popular culture would carefully observed the Torah's commandment not to embarrass someone else in public. Our Sages actually compare it to murder, noting that when someone is embarrassed all the blood drains from their face.
Many of the daytime talk shows and reality TV would be gone. Even American Idol would cease. The Star and The National Enquirer, People magazine and US would likely fold. Airwaves would go silent and newspapers would shrink even further than they have already.
Of course this is a fantasy. We've become a society that thrives on embarrassing others – it's entertainment! A world where reporters complete to find the juiciest tidbit about a celebrity.
We embarrass others without even blinking an eye.
In the process, we all pay a price. We lose our sensitivity – and don’t even notice. We embarrass others without even blinking an eye. We hurt relationships, we destroy communities. And we aren’t even aware of what we’re doing. We’ve become immune. We take that way of conversation, that sense of humor, that meanness, for granted.
And it’s up to us to turn the tide. While the Torah prohibits all forms of embarrassing others, some seem particularly egregious: teacher-student, parent-child, and husband-wife (or vice versa) come to mind.
Teachers: The few teachers who embarrass their students give all others a bad name. They have the power to shape young souls and any humiliation of their pupils is an abuse of their authority, with the potential for long-term disastrous consequences.
I’m still kicking myself that I didn’t confront the high school teacher who told my daughter that her question was like that of a 3rd grader. Aren’t we supposed to encourage questioning? Ethics of Our Fathers teaches us that a bashful person can’t learn. I comfort myself with the rationalization that I don’t think my daughter was hurt by it (except perhaps in her loss of respect for the teacher) because she had enough support at home and from her friends to recognize how inappropriate his response was. She had enough confidence to ignore him. But what about the girls who don’t?
Parents: Unfortunately parents are notorious for embarrassing their children in public. Some of it seems so innocent: “Play piano for the guests.” “Show them how you speak French.” Yet it takes a toll. Our children are not circus monkeys.
Some parents think it’s cute to tell stories about their children’s past adventures. But the kids frequently find those tales utterly humiliating. We should not use our children’s lives as conversational gambits or sources of amusement.
Obviously, the worst type of parent-child humiliation includes actual insults, yelling and constant berating. All the ways in which parents compare their child’s behavior to others, attack them for actions, grades or words or make them feel “less than” are in violation of this Torah prohibition.
Marriage: I heard a radio talk show host once suggest that the worst thing one spouse could do to another was to humiliate them publicly. It’s possible there are other behaviors that make it onto the “worst” list but this is certainly up (or down) there. We can start with yelling at your spouse. Whether in public or private, this is a humiliation. We move on to insults, cutting remarks, nit-picking, and even sometimes teasing (which frequently contains a hurtful truth). All of these behaviors embarrass our spouses, hurt them and our relationship.
Maybe everyone’s doing it. Maybe your wife laughs when you poke fun at her. But inside she’s crying.
We’re not used to living with this level of sensitivity. We’re not used to a world where it’s better to shade the truth than embarrass someone. We’re not used to tailoring our speech to the needs of others, to being self-censoring. We’re not used to celebrating and reinforcing the dignity of the human being.
If we really think about it we would see that ultimately the person we’re embarrassing the most is ourself!