Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The Blessings of Talkback

One of the more rational arguments against reading or making comments (he calls them talkbacks) on news websites or blogs was made by Rabbi Shlomo Aviner (pictured) in a Ynet article. I in fact agree with much of what he said. But not entirely.

Rabbi Aviner is a prominent religious Zionist Rabbinic leader with whom I have disagreed on some issues. Sometimes strongly. Nonetheless I find him most often to be one of the more sane and rational individuals of his stature - even when I disagree with him.

One can readily see why I like this man. He does not Paskin in matters like this. He merely advises. And that is something I wish all those who have come out with bans for anything and everything would have done. It would have in my view eliminated much of the controversy that now surrounds them – and those who have publicly questioned any of those bans.

In this case I see his point about what commenting on websites can lead to. He is right. It does. I see it every day. Here is what he said in response to whether one should read the comments to even a ‘Kosher’ article:

The rabbi's response: "No, due to major fears that it would lead to 'lashon hara' (gossip, slander), humiliation and valueless time consumption".

"Talkbacks can bring many blessings, but for the most part we see that they have many negative sides which means it isn't worth it in the long run,"

In his opinion, the ability to respond to articles and publications and to hold debates should have promoted "clarification and reformation of ideas and opinions" which is why "it could have been a wonderful thing", but instead it is used for diatribes and gossip under assumed identities which the Torah sees as "cursed be he that smiteth his neighbor secretly ".

"I can't tell the person who asked me the question to look at the talkbacks in a critical light, read only the positive ones, it doesn't work that way. A person can get swept away by the talkbacks…

How can anyone argue with this? His point about anonymity giving license to all manner insult and debasement is exactly right. I have in the past contemplated only approving comments when real identities are given.

I would have done so long ago but I do understand the need for anonymity in some cases. Since I have no way of really knowing whose reason for using an alias are legitimate or just an excuse to be as disgusting as possible to another human being, I have no choice but to allow anonymous comments. I only ask that a suitable alias be used.

Here is where I part company with Rav Aviner. If one moderates comments one can eliminate the truly vile ones. I do this every day. But I refuse to publish only fluff or those comments that agree with me. That would be counter productive. As Rav Aviner points out, in theory counter arguments could be a valuable tool in finding the truth. He even calls it a blessing!

That’s why I encourage those who disagree with me to do so – and explain why. We can debate an issue. Either one of us will sway the other with their arguments; or we will come to a meeting of the minds; or we will maintain our original positions. The point is that all sides get a fair hearing. At least that is my goal.

But that is not all my commenting policy is about. I encourage those who feel strongly about any issue I deal with to be passionate in either support or disagreement with me. If one feels strongly about an issue. One should be able to have a place to vent!

Emes Ve-Emunah is that place. My only requirement is that it not be insulting or denigrating to those with whom they disagree.

I will admit that the line between insult and passion is sometimes hard to draw. And I sometimes err in that regard. But hopefully more often than not the comments fulfill my desire to keep the discussion civil and on a higher plane – whether it is in debating an issue or just plain venting about it.

I realize that there are many who read this blog and its comments and would strongly disagree with me. They in fact repeatedly say so. But I think a fair reading of the comments will result in the realization that most of the time it is passion rather than insult that is happening. And without passion there is no venting.

I guess the bottom line for me is that if there are blogs that freely allow major denigration of others, Rav Aviner’s advice is a good policy to follow. But if a blog or news website moderates their comments properly it is not only safe to read them - it is actually a positive thing to do.