The Pitfalls of Facebook Discourse

I freely admit that I am a Luddite lacking a Facebook page, an Instagram account, or a Twitter account.   Our four children, having been convinced by our propaganda, also lack all of the above.  I prefer physical books to Kindles and still take notes with a pen and paper.  That being said, my kind nephew allows me to use his Facebook account to read discussions of my published writing.  In addition, some helpful friends inform me of particularly interesting conversations, enabling me to experience the taste of Facebook discourse.

Clearly, this medium presents certain advantages in contrast to exchanges in newspapers and scholarly journals.   Unlike peer reviewed journals and edited newspapers, Facebook pages usually allow anyone to comment.  Thus, they encourage an open and democratic opportunity.   Secondly, these conversations allow for an immediacy of back and forth dialogue. Instead of waiting months for the next journal to come out with a response, writers can engage in instantaneous ongoing debate.

At the same time, both those aspects include a darker side.  The open format does not allow for any form of quality control.  Speed of conversation eliminates the advantages of extended thought before writing.  When a scholar writes an article for a journal, he or she thinks about it for months, researches the topic, shows it to others for comments, and then generates a final product.  The immediate correspondence of social media lacks all those factors that deepen thinking and yet the internet preserves the conversation for eternity.  In my experience, Facebook conversations usually cease after about forty eight hours.  This time limit does not encourage ongoing reflection and more thoughtful expression.

One intelligent friend said I should compare Facebook exchanges to conversations taking place in the coffee room rather than to scholarly journals.  I would then perceive lower quality discourse as less of a problem.   However, unlike coffee room chats, the internet preserves the foolish lines of Facebook conversation.  Thus, the poorly thought out point remains ensconced in virtual permanence.  Secondly, few people end up spending all day in coffee room conversations but the internet, Facebook and the like, seems to have a profoundly addictive quality.

The remaining part of this post will outline some of the shallow forms Facebook discourse takes.  The common denominator is the absence of argument and the ascendance of assertion.  For examples, I will utilize Facebook conversations regarding three of my essays: a critique of an academic linking twentieth century Orthodoxy with fascism (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/orthodox-judaism-and-fascism-revisited/), a critique of one rabbi’s obsessive negativity about Open Orthodoxy (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/obsessing-about-open-orthodoxy/), and a review of a volume of scholarly articles on aggadic literature (https://traditiononline.org/book-review-the-aggada-of-the-bavli-and-its-cultural-world/).

I apologize at the outset for exclusively using examples where my writing was the topic under discussion; it is simply that I naturally remember those examples well.  Perusal of many Facebook pages incorporating debate will reveal the same types of dialogue regarding the writing of countless other individuals.

The Ideologues:  Some individuals search the internet looking only to promote their team.  They divide the world into the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness and react in the identical way to every issue.  When I wrote a post that criticized a left wing writer who associated the twentieth century history of Orthodoxy with fascism, I included a paragraph that censured Trump for his selfish narcissism.  One right wing ideologue called my comments about Trump “despicable.”

Echo Chambers: Like-minded individuals easily find fellow travelers creating a discussion group in which everyone essentially agrees.  These crowds portray ideological opponents as the epitome of evil, devoid of any ideas of value, and they swiftly ridicule and bully out of the conversation opponents trying to comment.  Given the growing polarization in our communal discourse, this problem may reflect the most pernicious aspect of Facebook conversation.

Name Calling:  Tarring someone with a negative term often replaces addressing the other’s contentions.  Thus, the left terms those espousing right wing positions as fascists and racists while the right returns fire by calling left wing advocates communists and self-hating Jews.  In many cases, these terms are overblown, inapplicable, and unhelpful.

Irrelevant Comments: On one Facebook page, someone wrote that the writer I disagreed with about Orthodoxy and fascism must be correct because he is a professor whereas I am just a Rosh Yeshiva.   Evaluating a debate based on professional affiliations contributes nothing to the conversation.

Of course, one could justifiably claim that the above flaws reflect thinkers of limited talents writing in but those of a more intellectually serious bent contribute comments of greater substance.  Let us turn to the remarks of various university professors who commented in these discussions.  Sticking with my critique of the connection between Orthodoxy and fascism, I begin with a comment of one professor from Middle America.

Assertion in place of Argument: “Interesting.  There are some serious flaws here.  I’m surprised you missed them.”  The writer feels no need to spell out what the serious flaws are.  Even better, he implies that another writer who agreed with my claims misses obvious weaknesses.  Such comments do not advance the conversation.

In the same thread, an Ivy League professor attacked my character.  “Distinct from the arguments, this shows the difference in menschlichkeit of the two authors in question.  המבין יבין”  When the host of the page challenged this writer, he responded:   “Hmmm.  Why?   I read the essay.  It included innuendo, snarkiness, and close to ad hominem attacks inappropriate for a scholarly or even topic engagement with someone’s work.  I am sure you will agree with that.  Would you like to go over chapter and verse?”  Once again, a professor feels no need to actually provide any examples of my flaws and implies that his respondent must clearly agree.

The same phenomenon occurred in a different ideological direction.  In response to my post against those with obsessive negativity about Open Orthodoxy, a popular Facebook writer accused me of “crossing the line by a lot” and “ad hominem attacks.”  Naturally, he does not actually cite any problematic lines from my post.

Accusations of Bias: Returning to Ivy League academics, another professor commented on my review of a collection of scholarly articles on aggada.

“In a review which is not completely silly, it is interesting that the comments about Michal are; she makes one mistake, she should have noted that Rav Kook and Rav Soloveitchik make a connection also made by scholars…all this in an otherwise fine article whose strong points are barely mentioned.   I don’t want to be chosheid Bi-khsherim as it were but it’s hard not to speculate why Rabbi Blau is singling her out.”

It seems that this fellow thinks I went after Michal because she is a woman.  He knows nothing about me and my work or writing and bases this on one critical comment.  He does not mention that I refer to her essay as a “fine article” or that I am also critical of essays by Reuven KIpperwassser and David Brodsky, and he does not address the serious flaw I found in her essay.  It is much easier to simply accuse me of misogynistic bias.

Obviously, this post does not conclusively prove the vapid nature of much Facebook discourse.   Perhaps I cherry picked my examples when, in truth, deep conversations are taking place all over the internet.  One positive model is Facebook authors providing good material with little follow up discussion.  Other authors (Shlomo Brody and Shlomo Zuckier come to mind) manage to write interesting posts and stimulate discussion without the dialogue deteriorating.  Unfortunately, they strike me as exceptions.  Given the massive nature of the data in question, I can only ask readers to survey the scene and arrive at their own conclusions.  At the very least, this post cautions readers not to get caught up in unproductive conversations.  Let us strive to generate a world of discourse in which assertion does not annihilate argument and declarations do not displace debate.

About the Author
Rabbi Yitzchak Blau is a rosh yeshiva at Yeshivat Orayta and also teaches at Midreshet Lindenbaum. He is an associate editor of the journal Tradition and the author of Fresh Fruit and Vintage Wine: The Ethics and Wisdom of the Aggada.
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments