A disturbing trend on social media today is “cancel culture” – when someone shares an unpopular opinion, and a swell of online outrage "calls out" that person in a "cultural boycott.”

This scorched-earth partisan politics – where people with whom we disagree are denied a fair hearing and a voice in public life – drives society apart, and at the very least keeps us from treating one another as decent human beings.

Through speech we can praise, encourage, and build others’ confidence. Yet we can also use it to destroy, as King Solomon says: “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21).

Last week, former President Obama criticized “cancel culture” as little more than a "feel-good" measure to boost the egos of those joyously engaged in self-righteous condemnation.

Obama denounced the propensity to catch others in a mistake, then “sitting back and feel pretty good about myself… [because] I called you out.”

Shutting down opposing views, or being overly critical and judgmental, is not a mark of true activism, Obama said. “The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws.”

Why Do People Gossip?

What would motivate one person to speak so negatively about another?

When someone feels down about his/herself, there are two possible ways to “feel better”: Do the hard work to improve oneself, or put others down. The logic goes something like this: By knocking others down, I feel higher and I don’t look so bad by comparison. But that “quick high” is illusory. By knocking others, you in fact lower yourself.

Even worse, we have all seen the power of “call-out culture” to tear apart relationships, families, and even entire communities. It polarizes and pits people against one another.

The Torah provides an antidote: the prohibition of speaking lashon hara, saying anything negative or derogatory about another person, even when it’s true.

Just as we have many faults, we should love others despite their faults.

The first step in avoiding lashon hara is to recognize one’s own faults and commit to improving on them. When we accept our own inadequacies, then we will be less critical and more tolerant of others.

Here’s how the Baal Shem Tov explained the universal Golden Rule, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18): Although you have many faults, you still love yourself. That is how you should feel toward others: Love them despite their faults.

If you find yourself getting “down” about yourself or others, instead of focusing on their faults, focus on their virtues. This will lift you out of negativity.

To overcome the tendency to discredit others and push them down, the Torah exhorts us to go especially out of the way to assist someone with whom we may harbor animosity. (Talmud – Bava Metzia 32b, based on Exodus 23:5)

As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes (Covenant and Conversation – Exodus, p. 160)

Your enemy is also a human being. Hostility may divide you, but there is something deeper that connects you: the covenant of human solidarity. Distress, difficulty – these things transcend the language of difference. A decent society will be one in which enemies do not allow their rancor or animosity to prevent them from coming to one another's assistance when they need help.

So let’s put an end to this toxic “call-out culture.” Instead, let’s try to mend the fence by reaching across in dialogue and goodwill.