Losing Your Chains

breaking-chains“The Web is a place for unlimited exchange of ideas. But according to an NPR report, researchers have found that rude comments on articles can change the way we interpret the news. ‘It’s a little bit like the Wild West. The trolls are winning,’ says Dominique Brossard, co-author of the study on the so-called ‘Nasty Effect.’ Researchers worked with a science writer to construct a balanced news story on the pros and cons of nanotechnology, a topic chosen so that readers would have to make sense of a complicated issue with low familiarity. They then asked 1,183 subjects to review the blog post from a Canadian newspaper that discussed the water contamination risks of nanosilver particles and the antibacterial benefits. Half saw the story with polite comments, and the other half saw rude comments, like: ‘If you don’t see the benefits of using nanotechnology in these products, you’re an idiot.’

People that were exposed to the polite comments didn’t change their views really about the issue covering the story, while the people that did see the rude comments became polarized — they became more against the technology that was covered in the story. Brossard says we need to have an anchor to make sense of complicated issues. ‘And it seems that rudeness and incivility is used as a mental shortcut to make sense of those complicated issues.’ Brossard says there’s no quick fix for this issue (PDF), and while she thinks it’s important to foster conversation through comments sections, every media organization has to figure out where to draw the line when comments get out of control. ‘It’s possible that the social norms in this brave new domain will change once more — with users shunning meanspirited attacks from posters hiding behind pseudonyms and cultivating civil debate instead,’ writes Brossard. ‘Until then, beware the nasty effect.'”

-Hugh Pickens
“Why Trolls Win With Toxic Comments”

No, I haven’t been “nastied” by a troll for a bit now (not for at least a week) but in reviewing the recommended posts at Slashdot today, I came across this little gem which seems to scientifically substantiate what most of us in the blogosphere already know: nasty blog posters and commenters know how to ruin a “free lunch.”

If it were just this one article, I’d probably never have written today’s “extra meditation,” but the guest speaker who lectured at my church yesterday morning preached on James 3. That’s right. The “taming the tongue” chapter in James’ missive.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water.

Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.

James 3:5-18 (ESV)

I know some atheists like to bask in the idea that science and religion are mutually exclusive concepts, with all of the “brains” being held on the atheist/science side of the equation, but here we see a scientific study and words of scripture complementing and confirming each other, at least to a degree. Not only do harsh comments on a news story negatively influence people who read the story and the comments, but harsh comments are just plain bad for people, according to James. Harsh comments, as James says, do not show wisdom but bitterness and jealousy and are “unspiritual” and even “demonic.”

troll-face-high-resolutionOK, that may not be exactly true of 100% of all Internet trolls, and there may be other things that motivate a troll to be a troll, but so far, no one has said that there’s any benefit to being a troll on the web or that trolls do anything good for any human being, not even themselves.

The guest speaker at my church last Sunday characterized James’ letter as containing practical pieces of advice rather than being some sort of masterful, theological tome. Frankly, practical advice is probably what we need more of in the online religious space rather than a collection of bloggers pontificating all over the web on various arcane (and sometimes self-serving) topics. I’m not targeting any particular group of people or blogs in this statement, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve been guilty of asking for trouble on multiple occasions. Hopefully, I’m getting smarter but time will tell.

At the age of thirteen, one becomes obligated to perform “the mitzvos.”

-Ethics of the Fathers 5:25

Jewish law does not recognize any such entity as adolescence. A child is a minor until the age of legal majority, which is the twelfth birthday for a girl and the thirteenth for a boy. One moment prior to the sunset of the eleventh or twelfth year, the person is a minor; the next moment, she or he is an adult. Parents and teachers still must provide guidance of course, but the “child” is no longer a child, and must assume responsibility for him or herself.

Parents take responsibility for their children’s behavior, but once those children reach the age of majority, they are accountable for their actions. A Jew never has a single moment of diminished responsibility; he or she always advances.

In the general culture, however, adolescence constitutes a “no man’s land,” a period of diminished responsibility. Adolescents are too old for their behavior to be dismissed as childish, yet too young to be held accountable for their actions.

The problem is that once youths experience a period of diminished responsibility, they may never advance to a sense of full responsibility. Similarly, Western legal systems abound with legal factors that diminish individuals’ culpability for misbehavior. It stands to reason, therefore, that once people have a window of lessened responsibility, they have even less reason to take full responsibility for themselves. This may be one factor in Western civilization’s worsening problem of individuals and groups blaming others for their problems and shortcomings.

Today I shall…

…hold myself accountable and responsible for everything I do or have done.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Nissan 5”

No, as I’ve said before, this doesn’t mean we can never disagree with one another. It does mean however, that we must take personal responsibility for every word we speak or type. It does mean that during disagreements, we must take great care to speak or type in a manner that is only edifying, illuminating, and uplifting. Not always easy to do on the Internet.

If you read a really “juicy argument” in the religious blogosphere, the hostile comments really do create an atmosphere of polarization, of people “taking sides,” of people who sincerely believe they are disciples of the Master and servants of the Most High God violating everything James, the brother of the Master, was trying to say to us. No one who behaves this way can possibly be happy with themselves or secure in their own identity, and every time we argue (me included), we expose our personal faults to anyone who has Internet access, which is a whole lot of folks.

Do we really want to do that?

One of the greatest Sages of the 20th century, the Chafetz Chaim, writes: “Torah prohibits us from endangering our health. We must be more stringent in these matters than other prohibitions.” (see Mishnah Berurah 472:11)

Lack of happiness is dangerous to one’s health. A wide range of psychosomatic diseases are caused by emotions like sadness, worry, envy, anger, and anxiety. The connection between our emotional and physical health is an idea that is gaining in popularity. The Torah has known this for centuries. As Rabbeinu Yonah (17th century) says in his commentary to Proverbs 17:22: “Happiness will heal a person from illness.”

Don’t wait to become ill. Increase your level of joy TODAY!

-Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
“Daily Lift #762, Happiness is Healthier”

Sometimes it may appear that there is a place where, according to all considerations, G‑dliness can’t come. An obstacle that prevents you from accomplishing something beneficial. A friend who cannot be approached to help do a favor. A gathering of people that seems meaningless.

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
“Not If, but How”
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

girl-dancing-rainThe point of this blog post isn’t to ask people to be “nicer” when commenting on my blog. I’m not pleading for myself, I’m pleading for you, my brothers and sisters in Messiah. You can’t live a life that’s completely consistent with your faith if you have to blog or respond to blogs out of hostility, anger, or malice. You cannot live the life that God designed for you or even preserve your mental and possibly physical health if your general attitude is one of a “troll.”

People don’t become happier and healthier or inspire that in others by repeatedly saying and writing negatively and harshly. We become more like what we think and say, whatever that happens to be. If we lift up others, we will be lifted up. If we show kindness and compassion, we will experience kindness and compassion in return. Maybe that’s why we should treat our neighbors as ourselves, because how we treat our neighbors is how we do treat ourselves and will be treated by others. Even the newest Pope recently kissed a long time adversary.

A person constantly goes from one level to the next. If you’re not going up, you’re going down. It is impossible to remain on one level.

In what ways can you go up today?

-Rabbi Pliskin, “Grow Ever Higher”

If you need to beat someone up on the Internet, no matter how justified you feel in the action, maybe it’s because on some level, you feel beaten up, too. It’s time to let go. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

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