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Navigating the Road of Verbal Deception!

By Rabbi Eli Teitelbaum

A careful look at the world we live in should easily convince us that deceit, lies, verbal chicanery, and deception have engulfed us from all sides. Anyone not very vigilant can easily sink into the verbal quicksand lurking at our every footstep. Deceptive advertisements filled with verbal loopholes and half-truths have become part and parcel of many businesses. Confusing fine print has unfortunately cost Americans billions in lost revenue and earnings. Selecting from among phone company deals can be as dangerous as Israel’s new road map for peace, and signing up for a credit card can be like driving through a minefield. Few people realize that credit card companies can change the rules anytime they want by simply providing you with a notice buried in plenty of very fine confusing print. If you don’t respond, you automatically accept their revised terms and may wind up paying outrageous fees.

Many of us have been suckered in by half-truths and ads that use asterisk disclaimers that are hard to see without  a magnifying glass and that can only be deciphered by an English professor or an attorney. What they say is often not what they mean and what they mean is rarely what they say. Some stores claim mega discounts based on “suggested” retail prices that have no basis in reality, while others sell merchandise that looks nothing like the picture appearing in the advertisement. If the prices sound too good to be true then better beware of the “bait and switch” game that many of them often play. We are often taken by car leasing deals that contain tacked on fees that we never were told about, or credit card bills that reflect expensive interest rate changes that are deeply buried in lots of fine print. For example they will offer little or no interest rates on cash transfers but charge a one-time 3% charge for doing so. “Hidden fees and surcharges for cell phones add up to $82 million a year extra that the city’s cell phone users are forced to pay” said Sen. Charles Schumer, calling the wireless companies an “industry out of control.” “No amount of convenience can make up for the aggravation of bogus billing” said Schumer. Many a time, even a good lawyer would have trouble understanding  what “is” is all about!

Misleading people with words, numbers or images has become endemic in today’s society. Thousands of people are fleeced of their life savings by companies offering all sorts of giveaways, such as a free trip to the Canary Island or a beautiful new home in the middle of a desert. Thousands are taken by fraudulent stock brokers who convince us to buy stocks they know are heading down a cliff. Thousands are conned by testimonials made by celebrities selling us a concoction of snake oil mixed with spider legs that supposedly guarantees us health and wealth and even supernatural powers. Thousands spend millions on bottled water lured by advertisements that suggest that ordinary sink water contains dangerous contaminates and can be unhealthy to drink. Little do they realize that the beautiful gold label on the bottle depicting cool luscious springs and tall snow capped mountains are nothing but a mirage. Pictures can severely distort reality and the media uses them to maximize their message of distortion.

Seducing people with numbers or by manipulating statistics has become a highly specialized field. An ad claiming that nine out of ten doctors suggest using brand x over brand y is the gibberish sold to the unsophisticated consumer. How many or which doctors were part of the survey remains a secret. This sleight-of-hand or statistical chicanery seems virtually undetectable, since most people don’t know much about science and are not equipped to evaluate the information. Clever accounting schemes have toppled some of Americas biggest corporations and have bankrupted many of their investors. Accounting gimmickry is nothing new and was recently used by the N.Y.C. Board of Transportation to hike up the fares. Luckily they were caught and the courts forced them to lower them. Attractive deals often include hidden fees buried in fine print. Beware of appealing ads that seem too good to be true – they usually are. Watch out if you are told that you must act immediately or that it is an “exclusive” offer, or if you are asked to send them money in advance or sign any forms. Remember that “Get rich quick” deals will send you to the poor house and the word “Guaranteed” only means that you are guaranteed to lose your money.
Yet, besides words deceiving us and harming us monetarily, they can do even greater damage by distorting our view of reality and objectivity and give us a misleading opinion of world events or beliefs. The art of fabrication and distortion is an old and ancient one. Lavan Ho’arami was a master of this art and used it to try to deceive our father Yaacov into making agreements that Lavan had no intention of keeping. Fortunately, Hashem protected him from these evil intentions.

Nowadays, some politicians have become masters of this art and used it to sell Israel a snake oil concoction for peace, brewed out of  a poisonous mixture of lies, duplicity, and divisive rhetoric. Diplomatic sleight of hand has been used to exchange one failed peace process for another as verbal delusion and falsehood have become governmental norms. One wonders what Americans would say if The Jerusalem Post would constantly refer to the USA as “Occupied Indian Territory” or describe the Bronx as “Black African Settlements ?”
One can easily distort or slant the news without actually lying. Take the New York Times that reported “Heightened Tensions between Muslims and Jews in France.” One could never guess from such reporting that it was the Jews that were the victims of the escalating violence. The Crown Heights pogrom was reported by the Times as “Unrest that left one black child and one Jew dead,” leaving readers with the impression that the two deaths could in some way be equated, instead of writing that the black child had unfortunately died in a car accident while the Jew had been stabbed to death by an anti-Semitic mob. When a white mob lynches a black man do they also describe it as “heightened tensions between blacks and whites?”  One can easily underestimate or overestimate the number of people attending a rally. A crowd of 10,000 can easily become 100,000 just by the addition of a zero. The reverse is also often the case. This statistical sleight of hand is all too common.

Reporting the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth still doesn’t mean that you’re getting the honest truth. It can be very misleading especially when the context is omitted. A newspaper may report that an Israeli soldier shot a Palestinian boy, but fails to tell the readers that the Palestinian boy was wearing a suicide belt or was just about to throw a grenade at an Israeli bus full of children. The report may be technically true but is a lie nevertheless. They slant the news by only reporting what they want to report. Any good writer can easily write the truth, yet, it may be very far from the honest truth.  Nimrod as well as Eisav and Lavan were masters of such deception, as Rashi explains the meaning of “gibor tzayid” or “ki tzayid b’fiv.” They knew how to use words to delude and deceive people.

Most people reading a newspaper or listening to a news report are easily fooled by such selective or biased reporting. People in Israel are under the impression that New York is so dangerous that one has to wear a bulletproof vest when walking down the street. That’s because the news reports only  the killings, but tells little about all the peace loving citizens and the peaceful neighborhoods. The reports about the few religious people arrested for drugs or stealing, tar and feathers all the vast majority of honest, law abiding Chasidic Jews. The news never mention the citizens who make an honest living, or return someone’s lost wallet.  That’s not sensational enough to make people buy papers. In order to make the news, you’ve got to get on top of a bridge and threaten to jump off, or take a few hostages and threaten to kill them or catch a rabbi selling drugs. Constantly reading such stories gives people a very unbalanced and distorted picture of reality. One begins to believe that every yeshivah boy is a teen age dropout  and chas v’shalom a drug addict and that every rabbi is chas v’shalom a cheater and every street is a shooting range, and every Israeli soldier is trigger happy and busy shooting Arabs all day. Jason Blair, the self-admitted liar of the New York Times who was caught red-handed fabricating his reports said the full truth when he stated “don’t believe everything you read.”

Words can be very tricky devices that becloud the truth, especially when directed at the unsuspecting or uncritical reader. One can easily substitute “freedom fighters” for “terrorists” or “occupied territories” for “towns in the West Bank.” The media has a picnic using powerful images to distort the truth or slant it to portray their own political biases. Showing a picture of a dead Arab child in his mother’s arms killed by an Israeli soldier can easily be more convincing than a thousand word essay defending Israel’s right to self defense. And when a German investigation proved that 12-year old Mohamad Al -Dura (Sep. 30, 2000) was killed by Palestinian – not Israeli – bullets, the story was virtually ignored. Telling half-truths placed alongside deceitful images can be very convincing. Just imagine a peaceful demonstration of thousands of chareidim with the camera focusing in on the one crazy person living a mile away who punched a chiloni in the nose with blood gushing down the persons face. What would such an image tell you about the demonstrators? Focusing in on the one shouting match from among thousands of peaceful demonstrators will easily give a distorted picture of what actually took place. Interviewing the one in a thousand people that says something stupid can easily defeat the purpose of the  rally. Yet, this is exactly what is often done by the secular anti-chareidi media!

Let’s remember that the road of verbal deception is a very slippery one that runs alongside a steep cliff.  Let’s be sure we drive very carefully!

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