Neviim Tovim, blogs by Gillian Gould Lazarus

Lightly Buttered Toast for the Trolls

Posted on: October 4, 2019

Celebrities and politicians who received more than their share of toxic trolling recently campaigned with the hashtag #DontFeedTheTrolls to deny the online aggressors the audience from whom they garner a significant number of followers.

If someone in the public eye, with a following on Twitter of some hundreds of thousands, replies to an insult from a person with a relatively scant following, the interlocutor will reap some benefit from the exposure, even if they themselves become a target of abuse.

Fully on board with #DontFeedTheTrolls, I realized that, as a private person with a not very large following, I don’t have the same duty to mute or block my own trolls. Furthermore, there can be no question that, in their minds, I am the troll while they are battling for truth.

Besides this, it is very hard to ignore an offensive tweet, as innocent bystanders might suppose it to have a grain of truth. If I have twenty friendly notifications on Twitter and one which is insulting, sarcastic or misleading, the latter appears to me as if highlighted in luminous yellow and my impulse is to reply to it without delay.

Sometimes such a message is worded to elicit a response, the phrase ‘I’ll wait,’ commonly appended; or ‘What about Netanyahu?’ as if one may not speak of antisemitism in Europe while the Likud holds sway in Israel.

When someone’s argument is irrational or ill-informed, when they abuse my friends or me, when they send me a picture of a dead child, said to be Palestinian, and tell me that I have agency in the tragedy, I am tempted to give some kind of answer.

Away from the gladiatorial arena of Twitter, I forget, mercifully, which troll is which: they come and they go; they block me or I block them, or they go out to walk their dog or I cook a soup or everyone goes to sleep. Sometimes they are ultra-persistent.  I blocked one such person who was famously offensive and eventually suspended from Twitter. Some negative publicity came his way and I noticed that his tweets were attributed to a man of professional standing, who, when photos emerged, had a thoughtful, ascetic expression.

Today I see a person I’ve never noticed going full tilt against a prominent Jewish account, armed with the words ‘liars, fascists, cowards.’ The taunt of cowardice is an appeal for a response. ‘If you’re not afraid, why aren’t you willing to prolong this altercation?’

Sometimes, I try to think conciliatory thoughts about the numerous Twitter users who have called me a child-killer (their word for Zionist), an apartheid racist (their word for activist against antisemitism) or a troll (their word for the Other). I imagine it as a dry run for conflict resolution. How would Brexiteers and Remainers come to a truce if private citizens can’t tolerate each other?

Since writing the above, I have attended a Rosh Hashanah evening service where the rabbi’s sermon was on the subject of ‘lashon hara,’ roughly translated as evil speech, covering anything from gossip to slander. The rabbi referred to the malaise in Parliament of fiercely rancorous language, specifying Boris Johnson’s use of ‘humbug’ and spoke of the uninhibited abuse facilitated by social media, where participants, remote from the adversary on a keyboard far away, hone their skills in offensiveness.

As this is the season for repentance, I thought – as I often do – about my own trollery, when I’ve replied to a provocation with contempt, sarcasm or profane language.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I heard a different rabbi preach about the prevalence of hateful language in public life, also referring to the Prime Minister’s use of ‘humbug’. He spoke of the importance of guarding our words, so as not to do harm with them and cited a midrash, where angry words are compared to arrows, rather than swords. A sword may be withdrawn, but once one releases the arrow, there is no returning it to the quiver. He referred to the meditative prayer at the end of the Amidah:

נצור לשוני מרע ושפתותי מגדבר מרמה

My God, keep my tongue from causing harm and my lips from telling lies.

(Psalm 34: 13)

 The prayer continues with the words,

ולמקללי נפשי תדום ונפשי כעפר לכל תהיה

 Let me be silent if people curse me, my soul as dust with all.

This is harder to say or mean, as it no longer comes easily to compare oneself to dust. What form would it take in transactional analysis? ‘I am dust, you are not dust’ or ‘We are all dust and that’s OK’? The translation in the Reform prayer book dispenses with the word dust altogether, preferring ‘…my soul still humble and at peace with all’. Either way, those who aim high must aim low and the last will be first.

The purpose of the #dontfeedthetrolls campaign is of course much more pragmatic: choosing to be silent is better than providing a megaphone for trolls to spread their messages. The religious point of view is closer to an idealized version of Twitter Support: hateful speech violates the standards.

I continue to interrogate myself over my own activities on Twitter. Does my sarcasm transgress into cruelty and does my anger border on mania? If the best response to personal abuse is silence, does the same apply in response to verbal aggression against friends, relations, allies, spiritual leaders, respected public figures, and so on, or against minorities which are distinct from my own minority?

Kohelet said  עת לחשות ועת לדבר

There is a time to keep silent and a time to speak. (Ecclesiastes 3:7)

The Preacher does not tell us how to speak, simply pointing out that there is a right time and a wrong time, but the rules against lashon hara, hateful speech, are well-attested.

As for balderdash and poppycock, when they occur, or baloney, hooey, hokum, moonshine, piffle or humbug, there is a time for these words too although the more conciliatory option may be to say, like Marge in the film ‘Fargo,’ ‘I’m not sure that I agree with you a hundred per cent.’

After an hour or so wading through antisemitic posts on Facebook Labour forums, making screen shots and displaying them on Twitter, it feels as if all the lashon hara is coming from them. This is not to say that the same doesn’t exist on right-wing forums.  It always did, hence my trust in the Left, in time gone by. 

This week I heard two rabbis allude to a Talmudic dictum (Arakhin 15b): hateful speech harms the person spoken about, the person speaking and any third party who happens to overhear it. True. What does it do to our souls, when we see and hear and repeat the acrimony that abounds on social media?

In 1873  the halakhist Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan published a work called Chafetz Chaim (which was also his sobriquet), on the subject of hateful speech, gossip, slander, lashon hara. Is there ever a time when it is allowed?

Lashon hara was sometimes permitted, based on the precept – ‘Thou shalt not stand by the blood of thy neighbour’ (Leviticus 19:16) – in other words, one should intervene to prevent harm, but the Chafetz Chaim had some provisos. One should speak from experience not hearsay and reflect on one’s words. One should first approach the transgressor privately; one should not exaggerate, enjoy schadenfreude or bring disproportionate harm to the transgressor.

The name Chafetz Chaim means ‘He who delights in life’. It is a reference to Psalm 34:13-14

יג  מִי-הָאִישׁ, הֶחָפֵץ חַיִּים;    אֹהֵב יָמִים, לִרְאוֹת טוֹב.
יד  נְצֹר לְשׁוֹנְךָ מֵרָע;    וּשְׂפָתֶיךָ, מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה.

Who is the person who delights in life and loves many days, that they may see good?
 Keep your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit.

What would the Chafetz Chaim have made of social media? I feel sure he would never have fed the trolls. It’s no way to delight in life.

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