The Other Internet Problem

April 1, 2012
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Jeff Helmreich

One of the starkest contrasts between American and Jewish law involves humiliation. Today, Americans can literally embarrass someone to death (as in cyber-bullying) without committing a crime, even though they could face jail time for forcibly shaking someone’s hand. Jewish law, in contrast, prohibits public insult in the strictest terms, likening it to murder.

This legal difference reflects a deeper one: Western society has promiscuously embraced the free expression and use of information, as it has promoted self-actualization through sharing and learning truth. In contrast, Jewish tradition has never much championed the flow of facts, and remains far more concerned with protecting people’s good names than with our right to say or know more about them.

The growing nationwide backlash against online social media might be mistaken for a retreat from the American values that nurtured these outlets. In fact, it merely exposes a tension between two of those values: self-expression and access to truth. Though they often go hand-in-hand, today the ability to present ourselves as we wish is increasingly threatened by revelations about our past selves: drunken chats, vulgar tweets, and, most notoriously, compromising photos. Hence, the backlash.

In contrast, there is comparably little public outcry over the myriad ways in which the Internet has expanded our ability to insult and destroy each other. Indeed, verbal attacks, slights, excessive or nasty criticism, and riotous outbursts between erstwhile friends remain in place, poised to sting again and again. The Internet, in fact, has revolutionized the ways people can harm others, removing nearly all the checks and filters that ordinarily accompany confrontation, while infinitely increasing the range and reach of verbal attack. And few of the proposals for changing the social media giants, like Facebook or Twitter, target this problem.

What about the more traditional ways of redressing insults — apologies and repentance, for example? As it turns out, online wrongdoings are uniquely impervious to these forms of moral repair. Part of the reason is that such remedies rely on a special sort of speech act, which does not fit well in the online world.

The philosopher J.L. Austin identified statements like “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” as commissives (or “behabitivies”), acts that commit the speaker to a certain stance on past events. The violation — the insult, assault or injury — represented a dark moment in the relationship between two people; the apology or forgiveness, in contrast, commits the relationship as a whole toward a brighter future. The wrongdoings were mere episodes; the speech acts of moral repair extend through time.

Now, however, so do the wrongdoings. Even after the most heartfelt reconciliation, we get to relive the humiliating message board post, or the hurtful tweet, or the list that excluded or included the wrong name. True, most of these transgressions can occur in printed form, too. But on paper they come cushioned by context: with datelines, for example, or the yellowish taint of age. An online insult, on the other hand, always looks fresh.

Apologies and similar speech acts, in other words, are losing the advantage of staying power. But they do have another power, which may prove more adaptable. These magical expressions allow us to accept or reject behavior that, left to stand, would add insult to injury by expressing a disrespectful approach to our victims, one that seems to say, “We’re free to do this to you.” By apologizing and repenting, we reverse that approach, and respect victims anew.

Perhaps, along with all the reforms recently proposed — for example, legal restrictions on the use of social media pages and “expiration dates” for online content — there could be a remedy for verbal insults that mimics the power of commissive speech acts. Some scanning and coding device, for example, could allow us to endorse or disclaim our online statements, separating out the words by which we continue to stand, and thereby stigmatizing, as unreliable, all that remain attached to our names. A new standard for online content could emerge that brands some of it as “owned” or “acknowledged” by its author, the rest as discarded and therefore disregardable.

I am, of course, dreaming. One day, I may become ashamed of this fantasy and hope nobody finds it online. Given the pro-privacy backlash, of course, there may well be a way to fix any online damage I did to myself. I wish, however, I could be as confident that the same ingenuity will go toward empowering us to repair the online harm we inflict on others.

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