There was a time, not terribly long ago, when disturbed individuals bent on broadcasting angry fantasies had only soapboxes in public parks from which to rant. And respectable people knew, if only from the ranters’ appearance, to keep well out of spittle’s range.
Today, though, the very means of mass communication that enables so much worthy information to reach such large numbers of people at the speed of light — the Internet — has also been harnessed to spread madness, hatred, lies and (not a word to be used lightly but here entirely appropriate) evil. Close on the heels of the swindlers and pornographers who have colonized so much of cyberspace have come the gaggle of electronic soapboxes known as blogs.
The writer of a recent article in the Agudath Israel monthly publication expressed chagrin at discovering the true nature of many Jewish blogs. Often anonymous as well as obnoxious, some of those personal diaries, he found, display utter disregard for essential Jewish ideals, such as the requirement to shun lashon hara (forbidden negative speech) and slander; to show honor for the Torah and respect for its scholars. I would have added basic fairness to the list. And truth.
There are, of course, responsible bloggers in the Jewish realm as in others, writers who seek to share community news or ideas and observations with readers, and to post readers’ comments. Some explore concepts in Jewish thought and law, others focus on Jewish history and society.
But responsible blogs in the Jewish realm as in the general are decidedly in the minority. And even many responsible blogs allow comments from people with very different values.
No one knows exactly why the Internet appears to bring out the worst in people, but there is little doubt that it often does. And the cloak of anonymity seems to unleash truly dark, ugly alter egos. As a popular Jewish blog’s founder told the Forward in June, “There’s a lot of testosterone on the Internet, a lot of swagger … Anything can happen.”
Many blogs have become showcases for carefully concocted stews of truth and falsehood well stirred and generously seasoned with gall and spleen. The Jewish sites among them like to malign guilty and innocent people alike — extra points for Orthodox Jews and triple score for rabbis.
On some sites, the targets’ guilt is established purely by rumor, innuendo, anonymous accusations and alleged association with accused or confirmed wrongdoers. Innocent until proven guilty? Not in the blogosphere.
Indeed, if a Jewish blog were fully reflective of Jewish values, even those who are actually guilty would not be subject to “open season” maligning. Truth may be “an absolute defense” in American libel law, but not in Jewish law; true statements are precisely the focus of the prohibition of lashon hora. It might strike some as strange, but the Torah teaches us that the evil of such speech is inherent, not a function of falsehood.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the apparent gullibility of so many visitors to those blogs, who, from their postings, seem ready to swallow any accusation or character assassination as long as the charges are sufficiently
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salacious or forcefully asserted. Some of the many adulatory comments posted on offensive blogs may have been planted by the blogers themselves, but many certainly seem to be from other citizens anxious to join in the fun.
The Internet in general is not a healthy place to hang out in. That is why many Orthodox Jewish religious leaders have frowned upon its use altogether for recreational purposes. They feel that the windows it opens to every corner of the wider world allow in not only some sunlight but much pollution of the most pernicious sort.
But even if business or other life exigencies require individuals to use the Internet, there are dark corners of the Web that are filled with venomous spiders, that pose extraordinary risks and should be avoided at practically all costs. The blogosphere is a particular infested corner.
All Jews should be concerned with basic Jewish values such as shunning forbidden speech, refusing to judge others, showing honor for the Torah and its scholars. And if we are so concerned, we are rightly warned against patronizing the untamed areas of Blogistan. While larger society may hallow the idea of free speech, Judaism considers words to carry immense responsibility. Used properly, they can teach, inspire and elevate. But used wrongly, or recklessly, they can be virtual weapons of mass destruction.
Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs for Agudath Israel of America.