Monday, March 10, 2008

Mind Your Manners (Online and Off)

I recently started a new adult ed class, “Being Nice: The Next Big Thing.” Our prime resource is Joseph Telushkin’s new “Code of Jewish Ethics.” The topics are “Being Humble” followed by “Becoming a Grateful Person,” then “Good Manners and Civility,” and finally, on April 6, “What is “Lashon Hara” and how do we avoid it?”

I’m discovering that this topic of etiquette and manners has become much more than simply a question of which fork to use or where to put the napkin. As basic societal boundaries have broken down, we’ve lost all semblance of civility. The “Wild West” cyber culture has a lot to do with it, though its impact has been just as profound offline as on. We are seeing a pandemic of shouting, threatening, and cursing. Rap lyrics have become the stuff of common conversation. I’ve spent much time observing Facebook and other social websites lately, and frankly it is scary. Even Facebook is beginning to understand that.

Internet civility was a prime topic of the Jewish Week panel discussion I recently took part in. You’ll be happy to know that appearance received rave reviews at some of the more cutting-edge Jewish sites, such as Jewlicious. Well, sort of. The blogger wrote, “Rabbi Joshua Hammerman was very Rabbinic and while I wanted to dislike him based on some of the things of his that I read, well, I just couldn’t.” I love it! But that review was a veritable love letter compared to the online vilification I’ve receive from time to time for articles that I’ve written. The only good thing I can say is that these criticisms are in the distinct minority and seem to come equally from the right as from the left. I must say, the left is more creative (I’ve been called “deranged,” and my looks compared to a famous Jewish porn star). One blogger decided to dig up an article written for the New York Times over a decade ago (about circumcision), seeking new ways to vilify. It ’aint pretty.

Any rabbi – and any writer – puts himself out there. I consider it a special privilege to live at a time when people can have instant access to virtually anything I’ve ever written. In truth, what’s always been true for rabbis (that every utterance is amplified – every word counts) has now become true for everyone else: every word we put online now is there forever. I’m more than willing to take the punches from critics, knowing that so many others are impacted positively. We need to take such risks for our lives to make a difference. But there is a difference between punches and sucker punches. If you look at the coarseness of the cyber culture, two things emerge as particularly shocking: 1) the tone and the language of the comments that people make and 2) that so few stand up to it. The more things change the more they stay the same. Mob mentality rules, online and off. The harsher things get, the more afraid people are to do something about it. That is the problem we need to address.

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