The season of teshuva and of moral improvement has arrived. An honest moral accounting helps us identify the sins we hope to repair and the character flaws we hope to overcome. A comprehensive personal inventory though, must address, not only specific actions but overall behavioral trends. Which situations bring out our better selves and which situations bring out the worst in us?
In this week’s Torah section, we are warned against harming others through secret crimes. One aspect to consider is how we behave in a world that affords us greater anonymity.
Public opinion serves as a powerful deterrent against immoral behavior. Concern about preserving our reputation and sensitivity to prevailing social codes both discourage unethical behavior. Actions taken outside of the public eye, however, are always less restrained and, often more dishonest and manipulative.
What you are in the dark
When we are faceless, we are often shameless. When identity is hidden, we aren’t answerable for our actions, and our conduct slides. A famous 1976 social experiment known as the Halloween study, convincingly demonstrated the effects of social accountability.
As part of the study, some children were asked general identification questions about where they lived and about their families, while other children remained completely anonymous. Both sets of children were offered candy and their behavior was monitored by out-of-sight observers. Even though they weren’t aware of being watched, the children acted differently. Those who had previously identified themselves were more restrained in taking candy, whereas those who had remained anonymous were less inhibited.
The mere knowledge that our identity is transparent provides social accountability and encourages self-regulated behavior. Concealed identity, on the other hand, affords us a shroud of anonymity under which our behavior is less restrained.
The Internet provides us all with a cloak of anonymity, enabling our personal expression without disclosing our individual identity. Admittedly, this invisibility has provided various benefits, such as allowing us to voice unpopular opinions and empowering us to be critical of governments without the fear of retaliation. However, the cloak of anonymity which the Internet offers is eroding healthy communication. Free from social accountability, we ignore or even flout the norms of civility which should govern and moderate human interaction.
Conversation on the Internet often degenerates into aggression, anger, bigotry, shaming, and bullying. Comments and talkbacks are often radicalized, and people are vilified for their opinions. Of course, all this verbal chaos ends in antisemitism. Ironically, freedom of expression has led to the oppressiveness of “cancel culture.” We used to cancel checks and appointments, today we cancel people and we stifle their voices. Beware the tyrannies which misused freedom always imposes.
Finally, anonymity encourages cowardly aggression. It isn’t incidental that the infamous hacking group, which assaults organizations and countries that they believe to be criminal, is called “Anonymous.” It is too easy to attack others without announcing your identity or intent. The Internet has provided a cloak for cowards.
Inevitably, emotional contagion from our discourteous web conversation bleeds into our daily lives and infects our overall communication style. What happens online quickly influences what happens in real-time. Our world is angrier and ruder, in part because of the way we speak to one another on the net.
Additionally, the rapid pace of online communication encourages us to respond hastily, having us impetuously saying and writing things we later regret, and are often forced to retract. Hurried Internet communication conditions us to speak recklessly, without properly filtering our thoughts before they escape our lips. The realm of secret crimes and the scope of these crimes have each expanded in the modern world. Comprehensive self-examination demands that we consider how we have communicated on various Internet platforms.
Sins committed in secret also invite hypocritical behavior. When we sin in secret, we open a gap between our public persona and our real self, making claims to moral or religious standards to which we don’t actually adhere. When personal behavior deviates too sharply from public impression, we become walking deceptions. Sometimes our hypocrisy is calculated, and at other times it is unwitting, but either way, we mislead others about our virtue and we gather unfair reputational benefits.
Aside from the deception of others, hypocritical behavior also makes us inauthentic as we constantly pursue two different lives – our real persona and our public masks. Sins performed in secret aren’t just harmful to others but toxic to a life of authenticity.
Though we crave authenticity and abhor hypocrisy, it is virtually impossible to completely live by our own moral code and to totally sync our inner lives with the values we cherish. Ultimately, social acceptance and personal reputation are powerful motivators of behavior, and there will always be a gap between our public and private selves. Everyone lives with a gap between professed moral standards and personal conduct. Gaps are acceptable, canyons are not.
As long as that gap isn’t too large, and as long as we don’t intentionally manipulate people or falsely engineer our reputation, we must accept the limits of human nature and the inescapable built-in duplicity.
The Talmud relates the deathbed scene of the great teacher, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai. In his final guidance to his students, he asked that their fear of Heaven equal their fear of social opinion. His shocked students protested that fear of Heaven should exceed concern for social reputation. With wisdom accrued over a lifetime, he responded, “Halevai.” If only they acted in private in the presence of God at least as piously as they presented themselves in public.
Recognizing human nature, this wise man urged his students to sync their private lives with their public behavior. He probably understood that they would never fully succeed, but he encouraged them to try.
The writer is a rabbi at the hesder Yeshivat Har Etzion/Gush. He has rabbinic ordination and a BA in computer science from Yeshiva University, and an MA in English literature from the City University of New York.