I often read the eponymous Seforim blog — “All about Seforim — New and Old” — which often has high level academic articles by well-known scholars such as Marc Shapiro, Aryeh Frimer, Gil Perl, and Jordan Penkower, to mention just a few. Recently, Rabbi Dr. Daniel Sperber, one of the world’s leading experts in minhagei Yisrael (Jewish religious customs), wrote an article suggesting the reinstitution of daily birchat cohanim (the priestly blessing) in the diaspora, as is done in many places in Israel.
As is often the case with Seforim posts, there were numerous comments. The first two caught my eye. Both made the point that Rabbi Sperber’s sources supporting his proposed change were well known by previous generations of halachic decisors, and since those decisors made no change in the custom, none was needed or appropriate now.
The way the comments were phrased, however, couldn’t have been more different. The first showed Rabbi Sperber “due respect,” called his article “comprehensive,” said his arguments were “cogent” and “virtuous,” yet concluded that they were nonetheless insufficient to overcome precedent. The second called his analysis “irrelevant,” said he was “not qualified” to give an opinion, and ended with a Hebrew aphorism that essentially told him to know his place — and stay there. A later comment, building on the latter one, told “Israeli idiots to stay in Israel and quit bothering us.”
Unfortunately, this mean-spiritedness manner of argumentation is not unusual. But why now? One reason, I think, is that the world is moving so quickly that there’s little time to think. In the 1970s, I could read an article in the New York Times, think about it, handwrite a letter to the editor, think about it some more, have it typed by the steno pool (Google it, kids), and (snail) mail it. If it was accepted, it would appear two weeks after the original article. The last letter I had published in the Times was written and emailed within 20 minutes of my having read the article I was commenting on, and it appeared the next day.
With such time pressure, words soon regretted too often are not self-edited out.
A second cause is what I believe is one of the major blunders of the internet culture — anonymity. I always sign my real name to comments and posts, and therefore I try to be careful to write only what I would be comfortable saying face to face. But when a commenter is anonymous, it’s all too easy to say things that would never be said if others knew who was saying it. And so Mr. Anonymous says them.
Third, some of our leaders have drastically changed their tone, and like lemmings, many others have followed suit. Why should I be surprised about nasty comments on Facebook and blogs when we have a presidential race that is, in the words of the New York Times, “sprayed with an open fire hose of schoolyard insults and locker-room vulgarities”? Someone who wishes to be the leader of the free world has as a constant refrain the complaint that his opponents are stupid, sleazy, and liars. These are all words that my mother would have sent me to my room for using about another person.
Or, even closer to home, we have a governor who is not shy about calling people with whom he disagrees “stupid” or “idiot.” And, since one bad deed begets another, those called names repay the favor in kind, ending up with a newspaper, whose reporter was insulted, calling the governor “fatso” in a front-page headline. Is this what our government and journalism have come to? Idiot, sleaze, stupid, fatso, liar?
I have a simple rule that might help ease this problem if others also followed it. I call it “the children solution” — that is, don’t do what you teach your children not to do or would be embarrassed by if your children did. If you don’t teach your children to treat people like jerks even if they act like jerks, then be careful how you treat people. If you teach your children not to call those with whom they disagree stupid or idiots, then drop those words from your vocabulary. If you would be embarrassed hearing your children use derogatory and demeaning language about others, then don’t embarrass them by using similar language. In other words, be your own parent.
I try to follow my own advice. A while ago, I saw an ad from a Jewish organization about a program it was sponsoring. I was unhappy with the program and have a good friend who plays a significant role in the sponsoring organization. So I wrote him a short two-sentence email that began with a rhetorical question — wouldn’t it have been better had the program provided thus and so rather than what it did provide? — and ended with a clever, snarky jab. That told him! Note, however, I said “I wrote him an email”; I didn’t say I sent it. And, indeed, following wise advice I received from my father many years ago — enjoy the catharsis but let it sit for a while — I went to bed without hitting the send button.
When I came back to my computer the next day, I took out my editor’s pencil (figuratively) and changed the first sentence’s rhetorical question, which presupposed only one correct answer (i.e., my approach rather than the organization’s) to a strong suggestion. The second sentence rightfully fell victim to the delete button. It was only then that I hit send. While I’m fairly certain that my friend was not particularly pleased to receive even the edited email, I’m comfortable that I made my point respectfully. (Unfortunately, of course, my temper sometimes gets the better of me and I didn’t, and don’t, always follow my father’s advice. But as I get older, I try harder.)
My kids think I’m old fashioned in certain ways (I still use capital letters and periods in emails, I spell out “you” and “are,” and sign off to them “L,D”), and perhaps this dislike of nastiness is one of them (a dislike, to clarify, shared by my kids). So, even as someone who always has been quite opinionated and loves a spirited, even boisterous, argument or disagreement, when I see the depths to which both everyday and political discourse has sunk, the Downton Abbey in me comes to the fore, and I long for a more civilized era.