Erica Brown

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Rashi’s wife came home one day from the market. Rashi, the 11th-century scholar from southern France, asked her why she had chosen to wear a particular dress and told her what he did not like about her outfit. She was offended: “Rashi, do you always have to comment?”

Yes. He always had to comment. He was a commentator. Fortunately for you, this is the only medieval Jewish exegete joke I know.

While we excuse a scholar, it’s harder to forgive the rest of us. Everyone’s a critic. But our people may very well exceed them all. Jews are known for being expressive, a characteristic identified in an early midrash. We are great at being expressive but perhaps not as good at self-restraint. Can I introduce you to the comment section, to Twitter and to Facebook?

Let’s take a look at what online comments were supposed to achieve. In 2010, the journalist Jeff Jarvis believed that online comments should be a vehicle for greater interactivity. Writers put up their work and allow the public to comment rather than engage the public throughout. He felt this insulted readers. It gave writers the impression that their job was merely, in his words, to throw the product over the wall and let people react while writers retreated into the castle and shut the gates so readers could not hear them. Open up the process earlier, and it becomes more collaborative, productive and respectful of public advice.

But two years later, in 2013, the tide turned. Maria Konnikova wrote an article for The New Yorker headlined “The Psychology of Online Comments” after the magazine Popular Science decided to ban comments from its website. The comment section was filled with too much venom and was feeding into a culture of aggression, allowing a vocal and often hate-filled minority to influence readers’ perceptions of what they read, unfairly biasing them negatively.

The psychologist John Suler created a term for the behavior of anonymous comment-makers: online disinhibition effect. While comment sections allowed a greater degree of risk-taking and participation from the public, anonymity was increasing incivility by leaps and bounds. No one is meaner than an anonymous writer.

Just ask comic writer Lindy West who has trolls attack her every single day. A troll used to be a mythic cave-dwelling creature with an unpleasant disposition. It has now morphed into a term for people who write deliberately provocative and cruel comments online. On Ira Glass’ “This American Life” you can listen to a supremely sad and painful encounter Lindy had when she actually confronted one of her trolls. The name of the article says it all: “If You Don’t Have Anything Nice to Say, SAY IT ALL IN CAPS.” Warning: this is graphic stuff for an adult-only audience. That’s how bad it is.

Lindy did not listen to the advice that every journalist shares. NEVER READ COMMENTS. As I gratefully learned early, those with wise insights and helpful critique will find you through regular channels. Writers who read comments often experience paralysis, rejection, shame and humiliation caused by an angry stranger too cowardly to sign his or her name. In the Bible, any anonymous figure is identified by name by the Sages. They could not believe that anyone who made it into the Good Book could do so anonymously. To be named is a blessing.

In 2014, research told us what we already suspected. Professors from University of Wisconsin-Madison in the Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication termed what happens online as the “Nasty Effect.” Negative comments unduly influence readers. When people aren’t accountable, they are much less likely to think through the consequences of what they write and its potentially harmful impact. Obvious, right?

Well, what’s not obvious to many is what we need to do about it. If giving people the right to comment anonymously online squelches writers and writing, ideas and creativity, then we need to shut down comment sections or at the very least demand that people attach names and contact information to posts. Before you write a comment, think for one moment how you might feel on the receiving end. To me, the comment section is an experiment that failed.

I invite this newspaper, for one, to consider eliminating online comments altogether. Snarking people with drivel and a side dish of abuse is not a Jewish value, neither are ad hominim attacks. Dayenu. I am not Pollyana-ish about Jewish newspapers. Respectful controversy is healthy, important and vital to our ethnic and national well-being, and Jewish newspapers should welcome conflict. But online comments are not a tribute to democracy. They are a platform for the ugly, not the thoughtful. If we learned anything from Genesis it is this: protect the dignity of the word.

Erica Brown’s column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).