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Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater

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Speaking Consciously in the Age of Twitter

Posted: 05/14/2012 5:20 pm

My birthday is next weekend. I will be 42. Relatively speaking, that is young, I know, but it is still always getting further and further away from the age of the high schoolers I teach every Sunday, and the b'nai mitzvah kids I help train each week. To them, 42 is old! I tell you this because I have found myself saying things that scare me, like, "when I was your age, we didn't have cellphones or Internet or e-mail or anything like that!"

In every generation, the phrase, "when I was your age..." is a sign of generational gaps, moments of recognition that as we age, society changes, modes of communication change, life changes. So, while clothing styles may come in and out of fashion in different generations, allowing for cross-generational sharing and appreciation (Mom sharing her '70s bellbottoms and flower blouses with her daughter is hip and cool!), we know that certain things are truly different today for our kids as they enter young adulthood than they were for us older folks. And, my remark about the Internet and social media, while hard to fathom for the youngsters today, is actually a pretty serious situation that is affecting lives in a real way.

How many of you saw the article in this week's LA Times about the South African models who flung racist remarks around on Twitter? One of the girls was white and said some ugly things about two black people she encountered, while the other girl was black and said some hurtful things about whites in response to what the white girl said. I am not focusing here on the issue of the article, which is that post-apartheid South Africa may not be healed from racist feelings as they bubble up in the younger generation; rather, on the way in which the lives of these girls radically changed in an instant because of social media. The white girl had more than 6,000 followers on Twitter, and when her racist Tweet -- which she said she made out of anger and later apologized for -- got into the hands of the media and was reported, she essentially ended her modeling career. Her reputation has been tarnished, she lost one of her main sponsors and an award given to her last year has been revoked by the magazine that gave it to her. One angry moment, one Tweet, one career ended. This is the life of the generation that is coming up today. And while I can sound like an old geezer saying, "kids today..." I know that I am just as much a part of this situation as they are, as I am on Facebook and Twitter and have a public blog. And plenty of middle age folks are getting into huge trouble by spouting hateful or hurtful things on their social media links. Yet, we know that when we are in our teens and early 20s, that is the time for irrational behavior, experimenting, making mistakes, learning and growing. In today's world though, those behaviors are not left behind in the "days of our youth," as they are all being captured, catalogued and archived forever by the so-called smart phones that are the everyday, every moment life partner of most everyone over the age of 13, sometimes younger. What can we learn from this and what is there to do?

Clearly, whether we like it or not, technology is advancing, becoming ever more invasive and intrusive into the privacy of our lives, even though kids growing up today won't ever know a life without these things. What struck me most about the article in the paper, aside from the sad and ugly comments made, was that out of anger, frustration, pain, a moment of passion that is the not the best time to react, the reaction of many young people today is to broadcast those feelings, and the often ill-advised remarks that come with those feelings, not to a close friend, a family member, a clergy person or a diary, but to the entire world on Twitter or Facebook. Classic psychology, and the rabbinic wisdom of our tradition, along with commonsense, tells us that in moments of anger or pain, our reactions are often raw, not fully formed or coming from a place that we don't completely understand or can control. These are natural feelings, ones that we all have and experience, but when allowed to get the best of us and take over, can be quite harmful and hurtful. Think of a heated conversation or argument with a spouse or friend where we say "something we didn't mean."

The Torah this week, in fact, records an odd story about two folks who get into a fight and one of them blasphemes the name of God. The people arrest this person, hold him while Moses asks God what to do. As is the case in other places, the punishment is stoning to death, which was not uncommon in the biblical age. However, an interesting aspect of the story says that "all who were within hearing lay their hands upon his head, and let the whole community stone him" (Leviticus 24:14). Again, don't focus on whether you agree with the punishment, as many things in the Torah are not there for us to take literally but to learn lessons from, but focus on the fact that the entire community is affected by this one person's actions. All who are within hearing the blasphemous remarks are affected, and the entire community is responsible for the punishment. And this wasn't murder, theft or another egregious crime, but a crime of words. Words matter. Language matters. What we say matters. How we say it, when we say it, to whom we say it, in what context we say it -- all of that matters. Our liturgy reminds us that God spoke and the world was created, the amazing power of words. And words also have the power to destroy and devastate. The incredible responsibility of being human is that this power lies with us, in our choices, in our decisions, in our hearts, minds and mouths. Yet, in today's world where we seemingly can't say anything without it potentially being broadcast around the globe in an instant, the stakes are even higher. As American writer Ambrose Bierce once reminded us, "Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret."

While it might seem easy to say "I don't Tweet or Facebook or blog or whatever," the fact of the matter is, this is a reality we must face and we must address. Our young people's lives depend on it. We know that Facebook and Twitter can connect the youth of the world, spark social revolutions and do a great deal of positive in our world. And these mediums can also spread hate and hurt, a place where bullying and emotional abuse is happening every day, sometimes with tragic and devastating effects. Now, really more than ever, I think that the ways of our tradition, the models of prayerful speech, of teaching our kids to seriously think before they speak, and by modeling that for them as adults, of slowing our world down, as is the main goal of Shabbat, to remember the true priorities of life, all these values and actions are needed and can be life-saving tools to manage the great challenges we are facing in the world of the iPhone and iPad. We are still in control of the world we are making. The power of love, the grounding of faith and the ancient wisdom to "think before you speak," are values that we are never too old, or too young, to embrace. Shabbat shalom.

 

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