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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.

Posted on October 8, 2010

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