I follow the principle that unless I’m prepared to have reported what I say and write on the front page of the New York Times, I keep my mouth shut.
Too many people, however, think little about the consequences of what they write on the internet. They use social media without discretion and without a sense of responsibility for the negative consequences on others when they vent their rage, disappointment, irritation, frustration, and disagreement.
In Israel last week, an Israeli government bureaucrat was accused of racism on Facebook. The accuser is an African American woman who made aliyah years ago. She entered a government office with her children to arrange for passports, claimed she was rudely shunted aside by the clerk and not treated as other women with children were treated in the office. She said that the government clerk, 47-year-old Ariel Runis, “told me that if I was complaining about discrimination, I should ‘Get the heck out of his face.’” (Haaretz, May 26).
Enraged by the perceived slight, she went home and posted on Facebook that Runis treated her badly because of the color of her skin. Her post spread quickly and grabbed more than 6000 “likes.” News sources picked up the story without fact-checking and ran it. It became a national story.
Mr. Runis was attacked widely throughout the state of Israel in an already charged racial environment following alleged racist police brutality against Ethiopian Jews and PM Netanyahu’s election campaign against Arab-Israeli citizens.
Runis’ description of the incident is very different from that of the offended woman. He said she had refused to wait in line, demanded special treatment and wanted to push ahead of other mothers with children who were quietly waiting their turn. He denied that his treatment of her had anything to do with the color of her skin.
Runis was humiliated and shamed by the accusation that he was a “racist,” said that his life’s work, including personal activism on behalf of social equality and justice, had been “erased with one stroke.”
The Facebook slander of his character and the media extravaganza pushed him over the edge. He shot himself in the head.
Runis’ suicide could not have been caused only by the public shame he suffered. Other inner demons had to have played their part in his psychology. However, one cannot deny the damage done to his reputation and the public humiliation he suffered by this woman’s Facebook post.
Fundamental ethical questions about responsibility in this case have to be asked. Who is responsible?
Runis himself ? Of course.
The woman? Yes.
The media in its 24/7 news-frenzy and rush to get the story first? Yes.
Everyone who read the Facebook post, forwarded it and commented on it? Probably.
It’s my conviction, and I believe backed up by Jewish tradition, that all the above are morally responsible in this case.
Jewish tradition has much to say about the ethics of gossip (l’shon hara – lit. evil tongue) and slander (r’chilut), comparing l’shon ha-ra to the three cardinal sins of murder, adultery and idol worship, the commission of which prevents perpetrators a place in the world to come. (Babylonian Talmud, Arachin 15b).
Tradition also warns that the people who listen to gossip are considered worse even than the person who tells it because no harm could be done by gossip if no one listened to it. The Talmud says that l’shon ha-ra kills three people: the person who speaks it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is told. (Ibid.)
Yes – social media has a positive function in our society, but social media is a potentially dangerous weapon in the hands of irresponsible and self-centered individuals who think little of or care little about destructive consequences to other human beings.
I’m reminded of the young yeshiva bucher who told tales about his classmates, was called into the rebbe’s study who instructed the boy to take a pillow, climb a hill, cut the pillow, release the feathers into the wind, and then return to the rebbe for further instructions. When the boy completed the task and returned his rebbe told him to collect every single feather, return it to the pillow and report back to him.
The boy said, “I can’t do that Rebbe!”
His rebbe said: “So too you must guard your words, for once you speak them you can never get them back!”
This tragic incident in Israel shows how important it is for us to hold our tongues and remember that if we don’t want what we say and write to appear on the front page of the New York Times, then we must be silent less we shame others publicly and destroy their good name.