In this segment, the Chofetz Chaim further examines the common practice of discussing other people’s intelligence. He asks the reader to consider the following scenario:
You overhear a conversation in which you are the one who is being evaluated. Everyone involved in the conversation offers his or her own expert opinion, and the group then concludes that you have very little intelligence.
The Chofetz Chaim poses a simple question: “How would you feel?” The Chofetz Chaim answers the question: Your self-image would suffer a terrible blow. You would wonder, “What do they see in me that brings them to this horrible conclusion? Do I really show myself to be a fool?”
And you would conclude that this group’s real intent is evil — to degrade you in the eyes of those who know you. After all, what else could be their motivation?
Yet, as the Chofetz Chaim points out, with most people such conversations do not register even a faint “blip” on the subconscious “radar screen” which alerts God-fearing people when they are becoming involved in loshon hora.
In all probability, such talk will involve greater transgressions than words of loshon hora which are clearly derogatory. When, for example, a speaker attacks someone’s behavior, he may do so out of a sense of conviction. The subject has behaved in a terrible way (at least in the speaker’s opinion) and he wants to register his protest. While the laws of shmiras haloshon do not permit this, at least his intentions were good. By contrast, there is nothing to be gained from discussing someone’s level of intelligence; the only purpose could be to degrade the individual.
Such discussions can be more dangerous than those involving a person’s sins. If someone tells others that a person has sinned, the listeners may tell themselves that perhaps the circumstances were not exactly as had been related; or perhaps the subject had succumbed in a moment of weakness. By contrast, when people hear that someone is lacking intelligence, the natural tendency is to accept this as absolute truth. The listeners look no further. There are no excuses to consider. The person has been labeled, categorized and filed in their minds as “not smart.”
The Chofetz Chaim stresses that in any situation, derogatory comments concerning someone’s intelligence can have terrible repercussions. However, when one speaks negatively of the intelligence of a rav, Torah teacher, or of someone’s new son-in-law or daughter-in-law, the ramifications could be devastating.
We can avoid all these pitfalls by remembering the Chofetz Chaim’s question: “How would you feel if you were the one whose intelligence was being attacked?
In a nationwide test on shmiras haloshon for elementary school children, the question was posed: “What could you tell yourself that would help you to refrain from speaking loshon hora?” The most popular answer was, “By asking myself, ’How would I feel if I was in this person’s place?’ “The innocence of children often allows them to see matters more objectively than adults. These children were able on their own to arrive at the advice of the Chofetz Chaim — advice that we should all take to heart.