It’s almost midnight and my wife yells at me to close my computer. I ignore her and click “write a comment” feverishly. I have to show this guy on Facebook how wrong he is. I rattle off a poorly-researched, slogan-dropping response. A debate ensues; one or two coherent ideas are exchanged before the back-and-forth starts to get a bit vicious, sarcastic, and personal. The debate ends 74 comments later, when one of us either lightens things up with a closing joke or signs off in a huff.
This unfortunately describes many exchanges that I’ve had on Facebook. This strange thing we call a social-network actually fosters lots of anti-social activity. It’s hard enough to maintain an appreciation for the background and personal perspective of others when having a face-to-face conversation with someone, all the more so when you’re simply staring at a computer screen. You can say something hurtful in a post without confronting downcast eyes and a reddened face. Our capacity for empathy is drastically reduced on Facebook.
Yet I’ve always appreciated Facebook as a forum for discussion, a place where ideas can be exchanged openly. I have generally thought of my Facebook activity as a mostly positive way of subjecting ideas to rigorous public analysis.
However, a recent experience has helped me realize how terribly I have failed to understand when, where, and how such analysis should take place. I have mistaken pontification for discussion, and I’ve acted combatively, insensitively, and arrogantly. Searching for truth in the abstract world of ideas, I’ve neglected the flesh and blood human beings behind those ideas.
I’d recently spotted a certain very rare and delicious Belgian beer in my local craft brew shop. The beer was from a small brewery in Brugge, which I’d visited several years ago with some good friends whom I hadn’t seen in a while. I decided to post a picture of it and tag those friends in it. One of their names didn’t appear when I tried to tag them, and when I went to his profile, the “Add Friend” button greeted me. Then it dawned on me: he had "defriended" me. Shocked, I messaged this friend and asked him what had happened. Did I offend him or hurt him? He responded, quoting a sarcastic and frivolous comment that I had made recently, saying “you are not interested in a discussion but rather a public lecture on what you think is right and wrong.”
I was saddened and ashamed. It wasn’t really new to me that my Facebook comments made some people uncomfortable. Even as a child, well before Facebook ever existed, I was argumentative and intense, refusing to yield when I thought I was right, which was quite often. This type of intensity can be socially distressing. I therefore tended to chalk up discomfort with my Facebook activity to a mostly positive social-ineptitude of mine, a certain bold honesty.
However, now I was forced to face a harsh truth; Instead of bold and honest, my comments were sarcastic, insensitive and undeservedly confident, belying arrogance and callousness, negative character traits that Facebook has brought out in me to an extreme.
Arrogance is perhaps the root of all negative character traits. The Jewish sages teach that godliness cannot abide arrogance whatsoever. Maybe that's because arrogance directly opposes the Unity that godliness embodies, as it's derived from a sense that you, and only you, can find the correct path, that only you can see things clearly. It’s taught in Likutey Moharan that the name El Shaddai, one of the many names describing aspects of The Creator, comes from the Hebrew words she-dai –that there is enough. Nachman of Breslov teaches that this refers to the “enoughness” of godliness, that there is “enough godliness for all the world.” We all have our own piece of godliness, of truth, and we all have the internal capacity to discover that piece of truth. No one needs me to show them the right way, even if I were able to do so.
This idea hit me as I thought about having been “defriended.” All those friends who I thought were avoiding debate because they were just trying not to “rock the boat,” were actually exhibiting humility. They were admirably careful not to insult anyone, and they understood that the world wasn’t in desperate need of their viewpoint.
I have begun to realize how pervasive and tricky arrogance is. All other evil inclinations are pretty simple in comparison. We all have physical lusts, and we’re quite familiar with them. If we were to embody the inclination for lust in the form of a person, he would have greasy hair, blood-shot eyes, rough features, and an obnoxious and ignorant demeanor. Those who strive for moral and spiritual purity recognize this evil easily, even if they can’t always beat him back.
Yet, arrogance is of a different nature entirely. He comes to us in pure white garb, with a thick flowing beard, an expert in spiritual and secular wisdom. He says “of course you shouldn’t debase yourself with physical immortality!” Instead, he whispers in our minds: “Wow, just look at how charitable and kind you are. Look at how intellectual and smart you are. I’m not saying that you’re better than anyone else- of course not! I’m just saying, you’re very intellectually honest. Those simpletons, G-d bless their souls, can’t hope to be as sophisticated as you are.” These whisperings go on day and night. They accompany every good deed, every accomplishment, and they guarantee, as C.S Lewis puts it, that “all virtues are less formidable once man is aware that he has them.”
To make things even more convoluted, we even have pride in our own humility! And if we try to smother this new pride, we become proud of that attempt, and on and on. It’s no wonder that Moses was praised primarily not for his intellect, or his purity of mind and body, or his prophetic powers, but for his humility. Humility is not a simple thing at all. It eludes us, even more so when we chase it.
So, I sit at my computer, browsing Facebook, and the Evil Inclination pounces. “Look at that guy,” he says, “what an intellectual and moral coward. Poor guy has no idea what he’s talking about. You have to correct him!” I nod and think “sure, I should say something about this.” And the classic useless, and potentially hurtful, Facebook debate ensues.
Since the shameful experience of being defriended I’ve tried to be much more cognizant of the way my comments and posts are received. I still believe in the importance of rigorous and honest debate, even on extremely personal and sensitive topics. Yet, I try to remind myself incessantly that behind every Facebook post, behind every opinion, is a living, breathing human being, with unique life-experiences and perspectives. No level of intellectualism, no degree of careful thinking, is worth senselessly hurting someone.
Ultimately, especially in regards to ideas on spirituality, intellectual debate rarely convinces anyone anyway. The mind follows the heart. We feel a certain way, perhaps because of certain experiences we’ve had, and we craft an intellectual worldview that fits this feeling. In the realm of spirituality, the work of the heart must come before the work of the mind, though the two are certainly not mutually exclusive.
Now, instead of reacting the second I see a Facebook comment that bothers me, or that I think is incorrect, I hold myself back, I close my browser, I take a deep breath, and I rant to my wife instead.
Periel is a Jew. He lives in Brookline, MA where he brews delicious beer at home. He also teaches math and science at a local day school and studies pre-medical science at Harvard’s Health Careers Program.
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