How and what should orthodox Jews report and comment on events that affect our world? A few weeks ago I commented here on a post in which discussion turned to broad-gauged condemnation of the orthodox media, as follows:
[W]hat you really object to, and not without justification, is what often seems like simple-mindedness in the haredi press.
This returns me to my point that hashkafa [philosophical outlook] is not a mere abstraction. . . . [It is problematic for publishers] trying to sell (key word) a newspaper or magazine to a population that is very sensitive to issues of loshon hora, hasagas g’vul, mesira and kavod hatorah… and which recognizes, sometimes painfully, certain limitations. These are imposed by the fact that the English speaking haredi world is unfortunately a very intimate community made up of a surprisingly small number of interlocking family-, neighborhood- and yeshiva-based groups. Therefore, much of what we would recognize as good journalism even permissible under halacha may still not be good business, or good humanity, because the subject of such journalism may be the relative, teacher, child, prospective spouse or benefactor of someone else who is vulnerable to the effects of publication.
Unlike the almost abstract limitlessness of the universes covered by the New Yorker and the New York Times, our little world is a very real place. And very real, little places pretty much never have good “coverage,” for these very understandable reasons.
When the BBT Administrators asked me to expand on these comments for a post here, it made me think of another post I wrote a couple of years ago on another blog, called “Asymmetric cultural warfare.” In that article I discussed the profound damage Internet defamation causes because of our inclinations to both encourage free speech and to protect the anonymity of speakers. Although these two values are consistently linked together by free speech advocates, I argued that modern technology has rendered them in fact contradictory.
The asymmetry I wrote of, then, is this: On the one hand there is no longer neither cost nor accountability to publishing. On the other hand what is published is instantaneously accessible to untold millions, and the damage done by it essentially impossible to repair. This is the very realization of the classic “now go collect the feathers” metaphor we apply here to lashon hora.
As I said in that post:
During the entire previous history of humanity until just a few minutes ago, elites — who usually had the stability of society, for good or for bad, as a central goal, as elites will — controlled the medium and the message. And the result was indeed a high degree of stability. You could not easily ruin a man’s life by communicating something false or scurrilous, though if you did it could hardly be undone. And little saw the light of day in print — be it by the hand of a scribe painstaking scratching out sacred writ, as the product of the crudest printing presses or over the air of the oligopoly broadcasters — without being weighed and vetted — no, not always, maybe not even mostly, for truth or neutrality, but at least for cost and usually for effect.
This sense of accountability flowed from the fact of accountability, often in its literal sense. Your quills could be blunted, your press smashed, and in a more enlightened era and place, your assets and good name put at risk through legal process. There was a high cost of entry to the market of expression, and that cost was, especially in unfree societies (as is still the case), often far greater than any true economic assessment; but once borne, this cost provided a counterweight — not a perfect one, but a real one — to the inclination to take no consideration of what costs others might bear as a result of your expression. . . .
In the old days, cranks and complainers and scandalmongers of this ilk used to peddle such wares via stolen reams of photocopy paper or purple mimeograph printouts. Mailed anonymously or pinned up on storefronts they were easily enough recognized as the rantings of marginal people; once pulled down and crumpled up, they were gone forever, and usually rightfully so.
Now we know not to believe everything we read in a blog, of course. . . . But slander has a way of sticking, especially when it is directed to those whose stations or dignity do not make response appropriate or practical. And the virtual eternity of anonymous defamation makes it more insidious than anything that preceded it. Potential employers, spouses or in-laws, business partners — anyone who can work Google can forever gain access to and read the rankest falsehood on the Internet.
The cost to the anonymous hit-blogger, or commenter: Free. The effect on people, institutions, communities: Unfathomable.
The magnitude of this damage resonates with particular, and painful, power in the world of online Jewish opinionating, a cottage industry if ever there was one. I avoid reading most “Jewish blogging,” but almost nothing justifies perusing the so-called “skeptic” blogs, works that could hardly be more grossly and misleadingly labeled. These “skeptics” are skeptical of nothing in the nature of claims or reports that reflect negatively on orthodox Jews and orthodox Judaism. Any observer, lacking knowledge of the underlying topics, would readily infer from the heavy sarcasm, negative tone, transparent bitterness and predominance of ad hominem attacks that these publications are presumptively not trustworthy. On further inspection, he would discern the utter lack of accountability on the Jewish attack blogs — for blogger and commenter alike are almost universally anonymous — and, again having no axe to grind of his own, would not waste his time or credulity on this boiling sea of words without speakers.
There is irony here both small and great. The small irony is that the predominant theme flowing through this sewage system is outrage over the orthodox establishment’s supposed lack of “accountability,” demanded by verbal terrorists who refuse to be at all accountable for the blood they shed with their words. They cry out for complete transparency, but only with regard to the lives of those they deem guilty. For themselves, a glatt kosher wall of anonymity behind which to quiver while loosing their righteous missiles is perfectly yosher [straightforward, square].
And the great irony? It is that — anger, ugliness, agendas and the worst of motives aside — the bitter anonymous bloggers and the fungus that grows around them often enough are writing about real problems that really affect real people in the real world — the real frum world that some of them, shockingly, live and work in. But their polarizing, vicious vitriol does more than assures a lack of sincere engagement. By choosing to take the route of personal, adolescent-style attacks and the imputing of the worst possible motives to their targets, any good they could do by using their understanding and insight (which is often significant) to publish measured, humane and respectful criticism is pushed further and further away than ever. This self-perpetuating cycle almost guarantees the worst-case scenarios they are constantly threatening, because their voices lack all credibility and no respectable person has any business listening to them any longer than necessary than to realize they are not to be heard.
As in the case of the obnoxious and deadly behavior known today as “road rage,” the complete departure from social norms by the Jewish world’s very special attach bloggers is possible only in an anonymous order. Few of them would admit to the personal cowardice their anonymity plainly reveals; frequently they will say they dare not reveal their own names out of concern for innocent family members or others connected to them. But when passing loud, public and acute judgment on those they deem blameworthy, they not only abandon any pretense of presuming innocence — then there is no accounting whatsoever for the innocent ones destroyed by collateral damage from their self-righteous, obscene and scurrilous broadsides.
The result is that by the actions of a handful of people with little more than vengeance and lashing out on their agendas, certain Jewish family names have, on the Internet, entirely absorbed the color of the opprobrium slung at them. The mutual admiration society of anonymous hacks has utterly polluted the flow of online discourse. Thus a even a moderately attentive search engine user could only assume that certain individuals whose lives are in fact virtual models for communal and spiritual achievement are scoundrels at best and notorious unindicted felons at worst. Some of the most distinguished people and organizations in the frum world, including many who have sacrificed vast shares of their lives and personalities for the communal good, have become, by virtue of repeated usage at the hands of people whose names will never be known and whose lives are bound for the scrap-heap of history, bywords for the most venal and perverted behavior. They are made punchlines, premises for escalating attacks, stand-ins for entire categories of unproved, disproved or unprovable offenses, thanks to the efforts of nameless nothings whose comments (and, when in some instances they are uncloaked, whose biographies) demonstrate lives devoted not to righting wrongs, but rather to sad attempts to numb the pain of their own failures in the manner known best to the mediocre: Destroying their betters from a position of safety.
It need not be this way, and the fact that it is not demonstrates why such publications are unworthy of anyone’s attention. There are many who write under their own names and unhesitatingly criticize personalities, institutions and trends in our community without resort to the ugliness of the anonymous flamethrowers. We may not always agree with these bloggers — either as to form, substance or style — but at least when an offended party believes one of them has crossed the line that party knows exactly the address to which concerns, or other action, should be directed.
Our world is a small world, and the Internet has made it smaller than imaginable. It has also made it far more ugly than could ever have been anticipated even ten years ago, thanks to these cadres of craven, irresponsible and angry destroyers. They make those who achieve, those who risk and endeavor, and those who care feel the fury of their anonymous impotence. They rejoice at real news of moral failure in our midst, when their hearts should be breaking. Theirs is a real pathos behind the cover of virtual bravura. But they do help us understand three things when we debate the role of Jewish journalism, Jewish historiography, and Jewish publishing.
One is that even where the truth might in fact set us free, half-truths do not make us fractionally more free, and may to the contrary irreparably deprive many of far more freedom than they grant a few.
The second is that while disease may justify invasion, or even surgery, on the intimate, personal and interconnected corpus that is the frum world, not everyone who claims to be one is properly reckoned a healer.
And the third is that no one would license, much less submit himself, to an anonymous physician, and certainly not one whose therapeutic choices are revealed by any objective reckoning motivated by his own sickness, his own pain, and an unremitting anger at those he calls his patients.
For these reasons no Jewish journalism, electronic or otherwise, will ever be worthy of the name if its author is not accountable, his biases identifiable, his humanity confirmable. And while in our free country anyone is legally free to report on, comment on, dissect and even with his words try to kill the frum world, anyone who is not committed to both standing behind his words and openly living in the world he is building or destroying by his works may call himself many things…
But not any kind of man. And certainly not one of us.