Talking nice in the blog world- try a little bit of chesed

The frontpage story in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, Bad behavior in the blogosphere: Vitriolic comments aimed at tech writer make some worry about downside of anonymity, inspired me to post about an issue which has concerned me deeply over the past few weeks-how we can talk to each other on the blog as human beings.

The Chron story was about a well-known woman blogger who had been the subject of vicious attacks, including death threats. Who is this woman and what did she do to inspire such hatred? “Kathy Sierra,” Dan Fost writes, “is an author who promotes the notion of emphasizing the needs of the user in Web site design.”



I always thought that Israel-Palestine issues were uniquely explosive. People on all sides of the debate get triggered easily, experiencing what is otherwise known as the “kishkes effect,” which creates an irresistible urge to yell, scream, and otherwise dismiss the other person’s right to exist.

But no, apparently, people who disagree about web design get just as worked up- some of them even want to kill each other.

Chronicle writer Dan Fost writes:

The incident and its aftermath have drawn back the curtain on a computer culture in which the more outrageous the comment, the more attention it gets. It’s a world that many women in particular see as still dominated by men and where personal attacks often are defended on grounds of free speech.

In addition, many of the newest tools of the Internet are coming into play. Blogs and online communities were supposed to herald an era in which “the wisdom of crowds” guided online behavior to a higher plane. Instead, instances of mob rule appear to be leading the discussion into the sewer.

Some observers believe the incident eventually could serve as a warning to Web communities to increase accountability and stamp out the vitriol that characterizes much of online conversation.

“We need to say this is not acceptable behavior,” said Tim O’Reilly, CEO of Sebastopol’s O’Reilly Media, which publishes Sierra’s books and runs the ETech conference where Sierra was scheduled to speak this week. “If you start making offensive comments, they will be deleted from a blog. Don’t give people that platform.”

This resonated with me. Though I understand that women can be as in-your-face as men, in general less women comment on the blog as the discourse gets more, well, pugnacious. I certainly haven’t been able to talk to other progressive Jewish women bloggers about this issue because…I don’t know any! And it’s not because women aren’t online, don’t read, or aren’t an essential part of peace-making.

When blogger Philip Weiss talked to the Forward about leaving the NY Observer and starting his own blog (which you should frequent), he said:

“One of the problems with the Observer site was the invective,” he wrote, “which I did a lousy job of policing.” He invited visitors to his new site to be courteous. “If people want to comment, they should keep out obscenity, scatology, etc. You know where the line is.”

There are lots of people who are really comfortable with this level of discourse. One blogger told me he doesn’t take the political personally, and I respect that. But I don’t think all of us feel the same way. I need not go into a lengthy discourse on speech and mystical Judaism to make the point. Words are powerful: they create, they destroy.

Far from a distraction, this all goes to the heart of muzzling. Part of what happens is that few dare comment on Israel/Palestine because of the inevitable personal attacks and smears. Who needs that? In the end, we are all robbed of the open dialogue we so desperately need about foreign policy, the Middle East, Jewish identity, whatever.

This blog wants to open up dialogue, not shut it down. We encourage people who disagree to join fully in the debate. That’s the whole point.

But an anything-goes atmosphere in which people call each other names, or use any opportunity to make ad hominem attacks does not actually add to greater dialogue. It shuts it down.

I’ve had some excellent dialogues offline with some of the commenters on this blog (with well over 1,000 comments, I make it a policy of not getting into debates on the comments pages. Some of the other Muzzlewatch bloggers may have different boundaries around that, but I am happy to talk directly to people who email through the contact link on the blog.)

I respect and like people who have different opinions. I don’t care about your politics- I care about you as a person who wants to engage in a thoughtful, important and impassioned way. I also understand we’ll all draw the line at what is OK and what crosses the line into abusive.

So I ask you to think twice and take a deep breath before pushing the send button.

I have always resonated deeply with Shimon HaTzaddik’s 3 pillars on which the world stands: On Torah, service [of God], and acts of loving-kindness.

For our purposes here, I think that trying a few acts of loving-kindness might bring us all some nice surprises.

One commenter with whom I have great political difference said, “lead by example.” He’s right.