To say that things have gotten nasty on the internet is an understatement. To say that people behave like animals is not as harsh as it sounds. We all have animal instincts, which show up as the evil inclination, that drives us to behave in a selfish, uncaring, and/or fearful way. This is side we see on the Internet – people write harsh and unthinking things, without regard for the impact on others. The Good Inclination is what inspires us to be our best selves, caring of others, and mindful of the impact of our actions on others. And believe it or not, Mussar can open hearts on the internet.
For example, I recently got into it with someone on Twitter* over my letter to the editor in the Forward. I stressed how important it was not to judge and stereotype others. Someone responded on Twitter that they agreed me, and then went on to tweet that Peter Beinart, the author of the article I was refuting, “exists 2 hurt #ISRAEL, & Jews he does not approve of.”
This kind of reaction is just not acceptable, dehumanizing someone with whom you disagree, and deciding that they must hate Israel and other Jews. There was a back and forth, and in the end, something amazing happened. He tweeted “I will say I should learn to tone down my words, u were correct.” We remain connected and in relationship.
Do you want to help improve conversation and connection on social media? Here are three Mussar soul traits you can call on to help you do it.
Mussar Humility: Come clean, occupy your space and remember it’s not about you.
It is important to come clean about one’s own mistakes. In the letter to the editor, I freely admitted my enjoyment at reading criticism of our Orthodox brothers and sisters, and explained how I used that mistake for spiritual growth. Leading by example can disarm someone who could become an opponent, and open the door for reconciliation.
At the same time, you should be ready to occupy the space of calling someone on bad behavior. If not you, who? The key is to do so in light of the soul traits below. And, your job here is not to let hurt feelings about being misunderstood and mischaracterized get in the way of learning about other people.
Mussar Honor: Remember the Divine Spark, and make your comments only after being given permission to do so.
We all have a Divine Spark, occluded by our baggage. That person making the snarky comment has one too. If you keep that idea first and foremost, it will influence the way you address them. They have the right to their opinions, and they have the right to hold positions with which you passionately disagree. Our goal is to elevate the level of discourse, and restore respect. You don’t have to agree, you don’t have to change your mind. But it isn’t ok to just think the person making a snarky comment, or espousing a political position you find abhorrent is a bad person.
In addition, don’t try the technique below with just anyone. You should only ask for someone to moderate their stance if they initiate the conversation with you. In the examples I give above, the people were making comments directly to me on Twitter, or on my Facebook page. They have given permission for a conversation. It is a very different dynamic if you just start responding to someone you hardly know on social media. The point is to build on an existing relationship and opening.
Mussar Silence: Choose your words carefully, for you are helping create the world.
Judaism teaches that God created the world with words, and when we speak, we participate in this act of creation. If you are insure of the Divinity, the point still holds: What we say has a profound impact, and changes reality for both ourselves and those who hear us.
The secret to improving discourse is to ask people one by one to withdraw, moderate, or change their comments. You aren’t asking them to change what they believe, only how they say it. Ask them to take responsibility, and to make a change. For example, someone posted a comment about Hitler and Muslims on the American Mussar Facebook Page. I was direct, writing below his comment, “This is a page to elevate our personal conduct. This link is offensive and inappropriate. You are better than this. Please remove it so I don’t have to.” To my amazement, he not only took down the comment, but replaced it with the picture to the right, wishing me a #ShabbatShalom. Similarly on Twitter, I pointed out that it was dehumanizing to say that Beinart wants to hurt other Jews. It is fine to disagree with him, but don’t dehumanize him.
Mussar Can Open Hearts on the Internet
This method doesn’t always work, but to paraphrase Rabbi Tarfon, we don’t need to complete a hard task, but neither are we free to desist from trying. We need to learn how to heal the divisions within the country and within the Jewish community.
Special shout out to Rabbi Sharon Brous who helped me recognize the power of the 1:1 approach after her talk at my synagogue. She explained how prophets who run naked through the streets and scream at the top of their lungs are ignored, but 1:1, thoughtful conversations can change hearts and minds. Listen to her teaching and get the handouts here.
Want to start your own Mussar journey? Take the Soul Trait Profile Quiz now.
Also published on Medium.