Thursday, December 03, 2015

Stabbing Somebody on the "Facebook Public Square"

By HaRav Yisrael Rosen
Dean of the Zomet Institute

"And Yosef brought bad reports about them to his father" [Bereisheet 37:2].

"He said that they set their eyes on the daughters of the land, and that is why Potifar's wife challenged him" [Pesikta Zutrata, Bereisheet 37].

Why Facebook?

I will begin with a disclosure: I do not have a facebook account, and I do not have a quarter of a million "friends" (except, of course, for the readers of this column). And here is why: I do not have the time or any desire to read about thousands of events as they happen, and to be updated every minute or two about what every "friend" thinks and feels at that very moment. I also do not have the time or any desire to send out posts just to see the deluge of reactions that I get. In general I can say that the world would have been better off if this tool had never been invented, since it has become a public square for punishment, "shaming," rumors, insults, and disseminating slander. All of these elements were intimately born in the cradle of the world's most widespread (anti-)social network.

I am well aware of the benefits of facebook. It allows widespread personal expression and provides a framework for many good deeds, such as bringing thousands of people to the funeral of a lone soldier and tens of thousands to the wedding of the daughter of a terror victim, in addition to providing a platform for collecting donations to help people in need, and even to help find very valuable lost items. However, it is very clear that the public square will become filthy with the excrement of "shaming." This malady will increase along with the enhanced exposure of the power of this murderous tool. Every man and woman can readily publicize his or her vague memories or even elements of vivid imagination about what happened or almost happened in the past. And the main thing is "not to be afraid at all" to sling filth at others, making use of their full names and both past and present titles.

A Hint of Murder

Insulting a person is "a hint of murder" ( literally, the "dust of murder") – see Rabeinu Yonah, Shaarei Teshuva 3. After all, we have been taught, "a person should be willing to throw himself into a fiery furnace in order to avoid insulting his friend in public" [Bava Metzia 59a]. The social network provides every single person with an opportunity to lie in wait and stab anybody else who is caught in his net. Many cases of suicide have occurred, even in Israel(!), as a result of "shaming" on the network. And I want to sound a warning that things may well get worse and not better: the necessary firearms exist, there is an abundance of motivation to fire away at focused targets, and the media serve as perfect crowds to line the square. They are hungry for ratings, and they therefore greedily upgrade the "shaming" to super-levels if the subject is a public figure, a celebrity, or one who occupies any kind of official position.

It is true that facebook did not invent the concept of shaming public figures. All types of media - written, broadcast, and networks - have engaged in this type of activity since time immemorial, and they are experts in slandering and insulting people. However, the classic media are still bound by rules of ethics and laws against slander. No reporter would dare to publish a derogatory article without giving the accused figure a chance to respond. The "Slander Prohibition Law" is a constant reminder to the media, and millions of shekels have been paid to the victims of slander as a result of this law. (Here is another disclosure: I was once slandered by "Yated Neeman" and was awarded some compensation for their deed.) However, in facebook, by definition, nobody would ever dream of giving the shamed person an opportunity to respond. It would seem that the existing slander laws do not have the power to curtail the "execution by shaming" in the town square which is used for denunciation or flogging. (Note that there was one case in Israel where a man was fined for shaming his former wife on facebook.)

"Nobody can Hide from His Wrath"

No individual exists, anywhere in the world, who can hide from the wrath of being slandered on facebook by those who seek to do him or her harm, or by some people who enjoy the "sport" of devouring others. The formula is very simple: Start with an embarrassing incident from the early youth of a public figure who is well respected – for example, he or she may have neglected to pay some tax or may have hired an illegal foreign worker. All we have to do then is sit back and wait for our desires to be fulfilled, and the script will play itself out.

As an example, take the case of Yinon Magal (who has been accused of sexual harassment that took place several years ago). To avoid any doubt, I will state that as far as I am concerned he is not a suitable member of the Bayit Yehudi Party. However: the subject of sexual harassment is part of the normal lifestyle in the permissive culture that surrounds us. I am not calling for acceptance and forgiveness, heaven forbid, but the proper realm for such complaints is to go to the police and the courts, or to make an administrative complaint which can lead to some form of punishment. There is no excuse for self-judgement in the facebook public square. Otherwise, where will the matter end? We must never allow the creation of social outcasts without some sort of judicial review!

For the last three days and nights, I have been searching my brain, and I admit that I have not found a worthy answer to the obvious question: "Okay, what do you propose?" It would seem that the only alternative is to tighten the belt of legal restraints and necessary enforcement measures, in a way that will define limits for "shaming" even within what purports to be "private postings," and even if there is a claim that the post was the truth or a half-truth. The law must provide for judgements and fines that will act as a deterrent, with compensation in the spirit of our traditions: damages, pain, healing, forced idle time, and shame.

* * * * * *

Yosef the Righteous One, as he is described in our tradition, was accused of "shaming" his brothers and reporting about them to his father. The Midrash lists many types of shame, including sexual harassment, as is quoted above. "They set their eyes on the daughters of the land" (with the memories of the affair of Dinah still fresh in their minds). His punishment appears in this week's Torah portion – "He met the challenge of the wife of Potiphar." Yosef's greatness was that he was able to maintain his righteous behavior!

(Written after Shabbat Vayishlach)

No comments: