If ‘Trolling’ Is A Symptom, Have We All Become Infected?

Last week, as I began my annual exploration of Jewish ethical wisdom on the use of speech, or lashon hara, I found myself confronted with a response from some high school aged students that I hadn’t expected. I asked if they knew what ‘trolling‘ was. One of them responded, ‘trolling is fun. Its fun to get a rise out of someone.’ Upon further probing, the response was qualified. ‘Only if its someone you know well; a friend that you are just teasing, and you know that you haven’t crossed a line.’ ‘How do you know?’ I asked. The answer to that question wasn’t so clear.

I have to be honest, I was pretty taken aback. I took them to the pages of the Daily Stormer (a neo-Nazi website) and showed them the original post that led to a ‘good old fashioned trolling’ of named individuals in the tiny, Jewish community in Whitefish, Montana, last December. I told them about the photographs that identified individuals, their children, and edited them with yellow stars on their clothing. I told them of the bombardment on social media and more with hateful, threatening words. Trolling, I explained, is not fun.

In reality, this is not a new phenomena. It is just that, in the age of social media, it is possible for a great many more strangers to target an individual, an ethnic or religious group, all under the guise of free speech. Milo Yiannopolous, notorious alt-right troller, was eventually shut out of Twitter for the viciousness of his online tweeting. But, until he finally crossed the line of speaking in positive terms of what is legally regarded as statutory rape, many celebrated his taking of the right to free speech to its outer reaches.

In local schools, swastikas and Pepe the Frog are showing up on bathroom walls. Kids are feeling emboldened to tease other kids because of their ethnicity or religion. What I have observed in speaking with some of the Jewish teens in my congregation is that some of this is not what we would regard as traditional anti-semitism or hatred toward minority groups per se. Rather, it is simply ‘fun’ to use words and symbols that can get a rise out of someone and make them feel uncomfortable. How schools and communities confront these trends and restore civility, respect, and ethics on how we speak with each other is no easy task, as essential as ongoing efforts are.

There is a Torah portion in the book of Leviticus, Tazria-Metzora, that speaks of skin diseases and the spread of infection. One of the more challenging of Torah portions to relate to and interpret for our times, medieval commentators had the same challenge and turned to allegory to make meaning of ancient priestly rituals by which someone could be declared free of the disease. Remembering that Miriam had been stricken with this infection after speaking against Moses, the rabbis made the connection. In Parshat Metzora, we shift from some kind of infection of the skin of a person to some kind of mold spreading on the walls of a house. Extending the allegory, our commentators saw how easily lashon hara can infect an entire home/family and, if not contained and placed in isolation, an entire community.

Our society is infected. It is the duty of each one of us to take our place among the priests who declared it as such, and demanded that it be named, separated out, and deemed unacceptable, until the infection subsides.

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