Beyond Netiquette: A Torah of Listening

Applying age-old wisdom to the most modern form of communication can help us overcome the deficiencies in e-mail 'conversation.'

In the early years of e-mail discussion groups, the term "netiquette" got coined. It's a neologism for "net etiquette"--the rules and regulations for keeping the internet a healthy place for discussion.

With e-mails flying in Jewish discussion groups recently over the current violence in the Middle East, tempers and emotions are running high. There are so many voices, passions, disputes. That's great, especially if, in the phrase of the Talmud, these debates are carried on "for the sake of heaven." But sometimes they spill over into anger and name-calling. This is bad netiquette and bad Torah.

On one Jewish list I am on, people started screaming at each other, the way we do online--SCREAMING!!! Insults began flying. Name-calling, too. And sarcasm, which can sometimes work in person, seems to produce more pain online--like a dull knife that cuts more jaggedly. Soon, people on both sides of the conflict were threatening to quit the list.

As Jews, we are called to a different standard, expressed for instance in that essential compendium of rabbinic wisdom, the Pirke Avot (Sayings of the Fathers), as well as in the Torah. Here are a few quick rules to improve internet discussion--not just for Jewish groups, of course, but for any group:

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1. Judge every person with the scale weighted in that person's favor. (Pirke Avot)

2. Love your neighbor as yourself. (Torah)

3. Do not hold a grudge against your sister or brother. (Torah)

4. Every human being is created in the image of God. (Torah)

5. Anger is the equivalent of idolatry and should be avoided at all costs. (Maimonides, Talmud)

These rules could ideally guide all our interactions, but they are especially needed on the net, because internet writing has a peculiar immediacy that often leads to a lack of restraint. It is pitched somewhere between a personal note and a telephone call, and that's a problem: We will often write things that we would never say in person.

Before the net, I would sometimes write long letters to "get things off my chest"--then, thank God, I would tear them up. But now it is all too easy to go from thought to writing to pressing the "send" button.

What is the effect on the group when all this instant anger and instant reaction starts flying through cyberspace? Of course, if people write in anger, our first natural reaction is to shut down and be annoyed.

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