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Photo-illustration by The New Republic (Photo: Ahmed Rizkhaan/Unsplash)

The Death of Civility in the Digital Age

I wrote a foolish take on Harvey Weinstein's Judaism, and was mobbed for days on social media. Then I rediscovered the joys of life offline, where humans treat each other with decency.

Photo-illustration by The New Republic (Photo: Ahmed Rizkhaan/Unsplash)

Last October, the morning that the Harvey Weinstein story broke in The New York Times, I published a short, stupid piece in Tablet titled “The Specifically Jewy Perviness of Harvey Weinstein.” I compared Weinstein to the sexually obsessed Alexander Portnoy, the narrator of Philip Roth’s 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint, “a grown man whose emotional and sexual life is still all one big performance piece.” I suggested that having grown up a schlubby Jewish kid in Queens, feeling like an outsider, might have stunted and distorted Weinstein’s sexuality—basically, given him something to prove, particularly in the presence of stereotypically hot Gentile women.

There was a lot wrong with the piece, which I wrote in about twenty minutes in the hour after I read the Weinstein story. It was analytically inadequate, making an analogy between Portnoy, a fictional fetishist and pervert, and Weinstein, a real-life sociopath, a comparison that had the effect of underplaying Weinstein’s crimes and diminishing real women’s suffering. I was wrong on the facts, too, for the rolling revelations of the ensuing days showed that Weinstein was an equal-opportunity predator, happy to degrade and devour Jewish women, Gentile women, African Americans, etc., whoever and whenever.

In the week to come, I received one of those public Twitter and Facebook shamings that writers now expect as an occupational hazard. Hundreds or possibly thousands of people, including close friends and professional colleagues, wrote or shared critiques of my piece; wondered in public what had become of me; lamented my decline (which had the strangely complimentary effect of suggesting that I had some status to lose, which few writers ever really feel they do). “This is a sick, disgusting and rapist viewpoint on Weinstein’s behavior,” said one person on Twitter. “Oppenheimer’s analysis is equally as vile as Weinstein’s behavior,” said another. “Fire him.” I got offline almost immediately, but I gathered from friends that as my old cohorts were upbraiding me, enemies were embracing me. I was praised by white nationalist Richard Spencer and David Duke, whose website ran a piece titled, “Major Jewish Mag Admits Weinstein is a Jewish Racist Who Wants to Defile White People and White Women.”

The day after the piece ran, I published a short apology. “The analysis I offered was hasty and ill-considered,” I wrote. “I take this as a lesson in the importance of knowing as much as one can about a given story, and in taking the time to think and feel things completely through before opining.” I’ve written a lot of pieces that have offended people but that I’ve stood by; but I wished I hadn’t written this one. So in one respect, I was grateful for all the feedback. When I do bad work, I want to be called on it, and to have a chance to own my mistakes. But I did wonder whether there was a better, more constructive way to have the same conversation.

I began writing professionally in 1996. In those early years, if somebody disagreed with something that I wrote, he or she wrote a letter to the editor, which they placed in the mail. In a daily newspaper, that letter ran perhaps three days later; in a magazine, it ran two weeks or even two months later. I usually got a heads-up before the letter ran, but I almost never got a chance to respond in kind. And that was generally the end of it. Email was just then becoming ubiquitous, so some readers found me that way, and sent a note. The notes were usually positive, occasionally negative, but never mean. In fact, in my first decade as a writer, nobody was ever snide or insulting to me about my writing—a fact that’s surely unimaginable to young writers today.

I used to love readers, but today I am wary of them because I generally get to know them via social media or the comments sections below online articles. There is a vein of misanthropy that runs through a lot of criticism of social media, as if people aren’t as nice as they used to be. I think that’s wrong. People continue to be overwhelmingly decent when communicating in the old ways. But that is not true of newer media. The web is thus doing something even more dispiriting than turning us into bad people: It’s giving us amnesia about how fundamentally good we are.

In the 1980s, my father practiced law in Springfield, Massachusetts. He did the sort of liberal law that few small-town lawyers do; in his most notable case, he won a judgment against the local police department after it failed to promote a deserving female officer. He and my mother were politically to the left of our neighbors, some of whom, in our heavily Irish community, may have disapproved of his work. But if so, he never heard about it. Most likely, they didn’t know the specifics of his work, except when he appeared in the newspaper every other third year or so. My father has spent decades of his life—during which he has held controversial opinions, signed provocative petitions, and given money to unfashionable causes—without ever getting into fights with neighbors or distant cousins or friends of friends. If he suspected that a neighbor did not share his choice for city council or school committee, he opted to discuss the weather or the children.

Of course, it goes without saying that he has never lost countless late-night hours, as I have, in pointless arguments over gun control, immigration reform, childhood vaccines, or genetically modified foods. When I was a child, if he meant to go to bed at 11 p.m., he did not get waylaid trying to persuade a conspiracy-minded cousin that Queen Elizabeth was not in cahoots with the Rothschilds. If he lost sleep, it was to finish watching the late show or reading the latest John Le Carré thriller. But my concern here is not the lost time, rather the lost contentment. We simply abused each other less.

In his essay “The Best Decade Ever? The 1990s, Obviously,” published in The New York Times in 2015, Kurt Andersen cataloged the many things that his favorite decade had going for it, from a fecund arts scene (Nirvana, Quentin Tarantino, The Sopranos, David Foster Wallace) to high economic growth to the absence of major wars. He also argued that in the 1990s we got a lot of great new technology, like laptops and the web and search engines, but without going into overkill. “And it was just the right amount of technology,” Andersen wrote. “By the end of the decade we all had cellphones, but not smartphones; we were not overconnected or tyrannized by our devices. Social media had not yet made social life both manically nonstop and attenuated.”

I know all the counterarguments in favor of the new order. The internet and social media have allowed a broader, more diverse array of voices to be heard. There used to be only a dozen opinion journals in which to publish a political essay, several times more literary quarterlies; there are now hundreds of web platforms with at least some audience; one can, in theory, hone one’s craft as a blogger; and one can develop a following on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram. Some important careers have been made, or made bigger, because of social media. The barriers to entry have been lowered, and the old-boys networks have been disrupted if not entirely disbanded. For people trying to break into writing or other arts; for queer and other nonconforming people trying to find community and feel less alone; for revolutionaries in oppressive countries—for all sorts of people—social media have been terribly helpful, even life-saving.

But there has been a cost, which is a daily coarsening, an omnipresent exposure to unkindness from which there is no vacation. We have sentenced ourselves to a lifetime in junior high school. So I’m out.

A week after the blowback had driven me offline, I gingerly limped back onto the web. I found that some well-wishers had stepped in to plead for mercy. Lay off him. We all make mistakes. These were the most painful for me to read, because they came from people who had believed in me, and whom I had let down. One old college friend of mine, now an Orthodox rabbi, wrote a Facebook post that began with a line from Psalm 149, recited every day in shacharit, the Jewish morning liturgy:

“The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” It reminds me of the importance of patience, of not rushing to judgment, of taking time—both because compassion is better, and often harder, than anger, and because justice and fairness are best-served when achieved deliberately. Mark Oppenheimer has been a friend of mine for twenty years. He rushed and did something stupid and offensive (not criminal, just stupid), a mistake he has admitted. The world, it seems, has rushed to condemn and disown him. Would that we could all slow down a bit. It’s the only way we’re going to survive.

Re-reading that defense of me four months later is, paradoxically, rather cheering; the attacks feel like a lifetime away, while the tribute, the public announcement of affection from a man I like and admire but seldom see, feels very lasting. If I hadn’t written something offensive and stupid, and come in for a communal drubbing, I’d never have known how loyal the rabbi felt toward me. We simply aren’t that closely in touch. If not for this whole episode, the next time he praised me on Facebook might have been on hearing news of my death (hopefully so far in the future that Facebook will be a thing of the distant past). And he wasn’t the only one to emerge from the mists of time and tap me on the shoulder, offering consoling words or a virtual hug. That week, I probably got two dozen text messages or emails asking how I was holding up.

Part of me wanted all the well-wishers to just cut it out, since their messages were what kept me from forgetting about the controversy altogether. Friends of mine who have also been mobbed online have reported the same bittersweet experience: You go offline to preserve some sanity—to continue to function as a spouse, a mom or dad, a competent employee—and just when you have pieced together two or three hours during which you haven’t thought about the shredding of your reputation, your phone buzzes and—before you think better of it—you read the incoming text: “oof—twitter is the worst! u okay?”

I was okay, mostly, but for one very bad night. After my wife and children were all asleep, I found myself under some blankets on the sofa, trembling, worried that the wheels would come off and I’d lose everything. The chain of events didn’t seem so implausible. If one colleague or student at Yale, where I teach, decided that my internet post really was “as vile as Weinstein’s behavior,” and called for my firing, would the responsible department chairs and deans have the fortitude—in the days after those first Weinstein revelations—to point out that I had never actually done anything like what Weinstein had done, not even close? And if I were fired from my teaching post, and then the freelance writing work dried up, what would I do for money? Or health insurance? What of the mortgage, not even remotely paid off? And what would the shame of being unable to provide do to my composure as a husband and father? Unemployment destroys families. For about an hour, it all seemed precarious and fragile.

Otherwise, I had a surprisingly irenic week by avoiding social media. And a week proved to be just enough time to detox. I stopped thinking about Facebook and Twitter all the time. The tickle in the back of my head about what I might be missing—that ambivalent mix of hope and fear that had become, alongside usual thoughts about life and work and family, my second internal monologue—subsided. I stopped looking at my phone. Without Facebook or the Times giving me regular updates, I got my news daily, with the morning paper, rather than hourly or more. Time seemed to slow down, and I had more of it free. I read for pleasure, both to myself and aloud to my four-year-old daughter. And I didn’t worry, as I read, that I was neglecting social media; I didn’t nudge my daughter off my lap to reach for my phone. I had the leisure to make eggs for breakfast, instead of dry cereal. The whole day exhaled. It was grand.

Meanwhile, I was reminded that the worlds of social media and real life are not the same, and that they converge less than we might think. My neighbors had no idea what was happening to me. Online, my social-media universe was filled with journalists and Jewish communal professionals, rabbis and professors and nonprofit workers, all of whom knew that a Tablet writer had said something offensive about the Harvey Weinstein case—but outside my front door, I encountered people who didn’t inhabit my social-media universe.

When writing an article, I often apply what I call “the West Rock Avenue test.” I live on a street filled with educated, open-minded, curious people who don’t work in media. They read articles, but don’t care about bylines or, generally speaking, don’t know who Tina Brown or Janet Malcolm are. So before I throw a name out there in an article and assume that everybody knows who that is, I ask myself, “Do my neighbors know?” When I applied the West Rock Avenue test to my public shaming, the answer was quite simply, “No.”

Nor, for that matter, did my fellow English teachers at Yale seem to know, at least not until the Yale Daily News ran a short story about the apology I had appended to the piece. My students knew more, in part because some of them are religious Jews whose social-media feeds resemble mine. When I talked with them about what was happening, they were curious and seemed a bit nonplussed. Of course, if they had been angry with me, or thought less of me, they would have been unlikely to say so; I had the power to grade them. Still, their apparent lack of concern was a reminder that the online world was not the whole world, or even a necessarily important one.

After about a week, I decided to return to Facebook and Twitter. My courage, like my fear, can run high late at night, when all the other humans in the house are asleep and my dog and I face the world alone. So it was after midnight when I finally logged on to Twitter, after a week away. I clicked to see all the mentions of me, then quickly refreshed my newsfeed, clearing out those mentions for all time. Now, except for the errant latecomer who discovered my offending essay more than a week after its publication, I would be safe.

The last bit of business was to read my direct messages. There were only five of them, and I presumed, before giving a read, that they would all be civil, since people are generally decent in private, one-on-one interactions. The first two were big-hearted notes from acquaintances who had lost my email address but wanted to reach out, the third a well-intentioned question from a listener to my podcast.

But the fourth and fifth were of a different tone. They came from the editor of a major conservative magazine, a man who, in my world—the world of media, not the world of West Rock Avenue—is quite well known as a particular kind of antagonist, symptomatic of the degraded age in which we live. He is warm and friendly in person, profane and unkind online. I had never met him, but many of my friends had been the recipients of his late-night ejaculations of rage, his obscenity-laced emails and Twitter blasts. I had never been important enough to merit his attacks, so I knew him only as a secret handshake: To be attacked by him was to join the club of writers who, for the sin of having done their job, had received one of his sputtering insults, which they circulated by email or recounted ruefully at parties.

And now it was my turn. I clicked on the message. It read: “RE: your Harvey Weinstein piece: Go fuck yourself.” It was followed immediately by another message: “You disgusting piece of filth.”

My first reaction was a kind of mirth. I was in the club! It felt like a bit of an accomplishment, albeit a dubious one: I had unknowingly baited him, and he had taken the bait. I’d made the dog roll over.

But then, as I walked my actual dog in the chilly after-midnight air, having my nightly chat with myself, my initial cheeriness wore off, replaced by a sense of puzzlement, then sadness. What kind of world was this? Here was an educated fellow; he held a responsible job, and in my field no less; he had edited works by friends of mine and done a good job; he spoke respectfully enough on TV, where he appeared regularly as a political commentator; he was a husband, a father, presumably a law-abiding citizen. I have one good friend who regularly encounters this editor at their house of worship and says that he is amiable and courteous. I wouldn’t be surprised if in real life he’s a true mensch, who brings chicken soup to the sick neighbor upstairs in 7Q. And yet, as I knew now, he said things like “Go fuck yourself” to strangers on Twitter.

What’s more, he seemed to make these comments with no fear that he had violated any norms. He didn’t worry for his reputation. That’s remarkable, if you think about it. It’s one thing to abuse people as a private citizen, to tell a neighbor whose dog has done his business on your lawn, “Go fuck yourself.” One can also imagine a lawyer getting fed up with opposing counsel and, after a long day of contentious depositions, letting loose some choice words. But this was a professional, writing to another professional, at another workplace, whom he does not know. Imagine if one investment advisor began sending tweets to an advisor at a rival firm, a man he had never met, saying things like, “Go fuck yourself.” Imagine if my father, practicing law in Springfield, had read an interview with some other local lawyer in the newspaper and, not liking what the lawyer said, found his address in the yellow pages, scrawled “Go fuck yourself” on a piece of legal paper, and mailed it to him? Would that not be an act of sociopathy, or at least derangement? Would we take such a person seriously in public discourse?

In person, telling someone “go fuck yourself” is not something adults typically do. It’s not that an adult would never say such a thing, but if you did, you’d probably instantly feel that it had not been one of your better days. You’d have a sense, the moment that the words left your mouth, that you were not your best self. You would be horrified if your children had caught you in the act. What’s more, if you talked that way, you’d better be prepared to take one on the jaw.

Our usual rule, when dealing with strangers, casual acquaintances, professional colleagues, and other people whose respect for us is contingent and can be withdrawn is to be extra nice. Most of us spend our days ruled by etiquette: doors are held, we say “please” and “thank you,” we bend to pick up things that others have dropped. The least friendly among us may skip these niceties, keep their heads bowed as they plow past those around them, but at worst they are promulgating a live-and-let-live indifference. (Except when cars are involved, of course. Road rage is the closest we come in the real world to behaving as we do online.) We hold ourselves to high standards. On the internet, those norms are overturned.

I am now off Twitter for good, and seldom on Facebook. Doing business in the analog world, I don’t quite have my old sea legs back. There was a certain comfort in meeting and knowing a person online only. There, friends are perfectly friendly, and enemies are perfectly villainous. How simple. Having left Twitter, I have people I’ll have to acquaint myself with in person. Will the Christian editor John Wilson still seem cerebral and witty? Will New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum give me TV-watching advice if I email her, or call her, or even write her a letter? And what of the editor who told me to go fuck myself? If we meet, will he be as monstrous and unforgiving as his Twitter self? Part of me wishes so, because it can be satisfying to have one’s first impressions confirmed. But he won’t be. He’ll be friendly, he’ll have a firm handshake, and maybe we’ll even like each other. I hope I find out.