If anyone makes his friend’s face turn white in public, it is as if he spilled blood.-Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b)
All week I have been haunted by an image of a young college student, shamed and anguished enough to take his life because his roommate made his private life public. I am haunted by the suicides that have followed in its wake. With so many beautiful young lives taken, we cannot afford to sit passively and read the news. Where is the outrage?
The Talmud devotes several pages to the cost of embarrassing someone else. It is an act likened to murder; the death of an 18 year old Rutgers student is the case study that makes this Talmudic statement jump off the page. And yet, physiologically what does the Talmud mean by a whitening of the face? When we embarrass someone else we make them blush.
The face reddens. The Ba’alei Ha-Tosafot, medieval commentators on the Talmud, explain that true embarrassment whitens the face. All the blood that gathers in the face at the moment of embarrassment drains from the face leaving the skin white and ghastly. The Talmud focuses on the height of embarrassment – not only its sudden shock but the after-shock. The immediate impact of what was said to us or about us has left, and in its place are the awful consequences, the change of public opinion, the humiliation.
Many people are blaming technology for this suicide, but technology is only a servant to human intention. It is a method, not a cause. Maybe we blame technology to minimize the human accountability in this story. It is true that technology has vastly changed the way that we communicate and has challenged the boundaries of privacy. In an NPR interview this week, a professor of social media from Harvard contended that new forms of communication are indeed pushing the norms of identity.
In the “old days,” we could bifurcate our public and private lives, who we were at work and school and who we were at home. But when we put up a picture of our last vacation or the birth of puppies on an internet profile, we blur those distinctions. Our co-workers can see us outside of our cubicles. So blurry are these distinctions that people are now using multiple names for their screen profiles so that potential employers cannot look them up and discover how much they had to drink last weekend. If you’re one of these people, think again. The capacity of technology to shape and manipulate identity is frightening. We need to be integrated, whole, ethical selves. We need to be people who have nothing shameful to hide.
Last week, in a fascinating confluence, Malcolm Gladwell published an article in the New Yorker called ‘Small Change’ on technology and social action and a movie was released about social networking. Gladwell questions whether the lunch counter revolution during the Civil Rights Movement would have ever happened had people been mobilized by Facebook and Twitter. He argues that the kind of sacrifices required to ameliorate societal ills like racism are beyond what social media can produce. In his words, technology “…makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”
We get information quickly, but in order to act on information to change lives we still need face-to-face relationships. Could it be, in light of our Talmudic aphorism, that we think less about the white face of another’s embarrassment when we do not see that face at all? Has technology removed the kind of relationship building that lets a crime like last week’s happen?
The poet Robert Browning struggled with his own lack of privacy and wrote, “I give the fight up: let there be an end, a privacy, an obscure nook for me. I want to be forgotten even by God.” Browning may have wanted to give up the fight, but we cannot. God will not forget us nor will God allow us to forget that we are created in the divine image and that demands responsibility to find and protect the image of God in the face of every other human being.
Reprinted with permission from the author.
Pronounced: TALL-mud, Origin: Hebrew, the set of teachings and commentaries on the Torah that form the basis for Jewish law. Comprised of the Mishnah and the Gemara, it contains the opinions of thousands of rabbis from different periods in Jewish history.