Character vs. Reputation and the Social Construction of Reality

Balak By :  Malka Strasberg Edinger Adjunct Lecturer in Bible, JTS Posted On Jul 3, 2015 / 5775 | דבר אחר | A Different Perspective
“Vrai ou faux, ce qu’on dit des hommes tient souvent autant de place dans leur vie et souvent dans leur destinée que ce qu’ils font.” 
“Whether true or false, what is said about men often has as much influence on their lives, and particularly on their destinies, as what they do.”
Victor Hugo, Les Misérables, 1862
“Many a man’s reputation would not know his character if they met on the street.”
Elbert Hubbard, A Thousand and One Epigrams, 1911

It is easy to pigeonhole people and to dichotomize the categories into which we place people, such as good vs. evil. Myths and legends tend to portray characters in this one-dimensional manner, and it is considered remarkable when a character is portrayed as complex. But all humans are complex. The human condition is a multivalent one, and people are almost never so easily categorized. Everyone’s character has the capacity for both good and bad, and in fact, everyone realizes elements of both within themselves.

Unfortunately, our reputation is never truly dependent solely on our actions. Reality is a social construction, and our reputations and legacies are always subject to the perceptions, interpretations, and agendas of others. And humans are flawed; we employ selective memory, we judge others based on external factors, and our inaccurate or incomplete portrayals of others are directly responsible for altering their images. This week’s parashah presents us with an illustration of this phenomenon. Balaam is portrayed in the narrative in a largely positive light, with the sole exception of the affair with his donkey. Yet Balaam’s legacy in the Jewish tradition survived as a negative one, primarily because it served a specific pedagogical purpose.

This power to shape a man’s remembrance lies in the hands of others. We all hold this power and should be mindful of it when reading the news or speaking about people. Let us not skew reality to fit our own desires at the expense of others.