Michael Jackson was laid to rest today, but I wonder if we slowly killed him years ago. In the two weeks since his passing, the myriad articles that have come out seem to couple any mention of his eccentricity or bizarreness with an explanation of his rough childhood or lonely adulthood. It makes me think that the media is finally done torturing the guy now that he's gone. Mocking the dead, after all, is in poor taste in almost everyone's book.
Now while it's admirable to show respect for the deceased, how about the living? Aren't their feelings even more important since they're still around to have them? Although I never met Michael (I did, however, meet the dog he gave Shmuley Boteach!) I am certain that no matter how bizarre he was, he never enjoyed public ridicule, yet that's how "Whacko Jacko" spent most of the last two decades.
Despite his money and fame, there was very little that Jackson could have done to protect himself against the nastiness in the media because the American legal system tacitly enables gossip mongering. Any negative information spread about a person is only considered defamation is if it is untrue. In other words, anyone can reveal any secret or make any statement about another, without fear of legal retribution, as long as the information is factual.
In Judaism we have a very different take on this issue. Telling true negative stories about another person is strictly prohibited by the Torah and is called lashon hara (evil speech). Speaking lashon hara is considered as serious as murdering someone, and listening to it is even worse, because it allows the speaker to have an audience.
Yet even with such a vehement stance against speaking and listening to gossip, it remains one of the hardest mitzvahs for people (even in the religious community) to adhere to. Why? I don't know for sure, but as my rabbi once put it, "lashon hara is geshmake" (which means delicious, in Yiddish). My first thought upon hearing him say that was, "Oh no, not you too, rabbi!" But after thinking about it some more, I realized that just as we are wired to enjoy certain tastes and aromas, so too we are wired to enjoy hearing and spreading "juicy" gossip.
If we had no interest in it, there'd be no challenge in refraining from it. It's only when something is a struggle that we have the opportunity to choose right from wrong. So the next time the choice comes your way, remember that they don't call it character "assassination" or mortification (derived from le mort, the French word for death) for nothing. While going cold turkey might be tough, going lashon hara light should be doable for everyone.