Practicing Ethical Writing
There was time when writing was a skill, a coveted medium reserved exclusively for scribes of the very powerful, for the most lofty of thinkers, for the literary geniuses of the world, and for the mightiest wielders of the pen. For much of our history, large amounts of the world’s population could not read, and certainly could not write. Over time, as books and newspapers and letter-writing became more and more common, and prices of paper and ink went down, literacy rates went up to a point that even average people could articulate their thoughts in writing. Today, in the computer age, it seems as though everyone knows how to write, and it seems like the whole world is taking advantage of this technological marvel to express themselves in print.
However, with the widespread adaptation of the internet, writing in the contemporary age has changed as well, and has definitionally become banal and commonplace. Think about it. The internet has birthed an environment in which anyone can write (assuming they have a basic level of education) and anyone can be a prolific “writer”. But not only that. Newfound in our day is the ability to self-publish our writings in a variety of media and share them with the world. The emphasis on privacy, so visible in the handwritten letters between two lovers, kept strictly private, privileged professional correspondence, and perhaps the all-important “top-secret” diary of the past, has been replaced with a need among today’s writers to mass produce their ideas.
Perhaps this is advantageous. Writing that is open and accessible to everyone is perhaps the greatest statement of democracy and equality, that everyone can have their voices heard. But another, less advantageous phenomenon has become apparent as well: people have capitalized upon writing as a wieldy vehicle of complaints. Perhaps it is precisely because writing has become such an easy and effortless process that our approach to writing has become cheapened and less refined. We no longer view our writing as a reflection of ourselves, as a tiring attestment to our deepest and most significant thoughts. The ease and accessibility of technology trivializes our writing and makes us feel removed from its content. Therefore, people today are much more inclined to unabashedly and perhaps thoughtlessly share whatever comes to mind.
Browsing certain websites today, one might observe that the deliberate word choices and delicate prose of yore have been transformed into bold rhetoric and brash tones. As a society, we seem to have thoroughly violated and corrupted the beauty of writing by forcing it to become an instrument of our unhappiness. I refer not only to the world of blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and comments, but also to well-known sites like Yelp and TripAdvisor. Had a bad experience at a hotel, restaurant, or auto-repair shop? A short entry will help make you feel better- and make the establishment look terrible. Do you feel discriminated against, or do you particularly want to support the plight of some vulnerable group? Have you found an injustice that needs to be corrected or experienced an event was blatantly mishandled? Tell us about it, please. It has become ingrained in us that we have a voice, and that we have a duty to make ourselves be heard. And yes, while people do offer praise as well, nothing gets us so infuriated, so passionate, so eager to write, as the things that annoy or concern us, and it is on these things that we focus our writings. The result is that anything that happens to us that we disagree with, anything that we have an opinion on -- anything, anything at all -- will be broadcasted to the world.
Complaining is not new, of course. But as far as I can imagine, it used to be that people would tell their friends and family members about an idea they had or about something that bothered them, and that would be it. Perhaps word would travel, but it would not get very far. If one made a particularly compelling case, perhaps one’s point could be validated in the form of a letter to the editor or a small article in a local newspaper. But today? Perceived acts of unfairness, mistreatment, and personal grievances can be related and shared with the world within a moment. It is this new culture of mass complaining that is a strictly contemporary issue.
There is an inherent benefit to all of this, in turn: We hope that by complaining, something will happen, and the problem will be changed or eradicated in some way. Our greatest objective in all of this, I hope, is to accomplish change, not just to achieve notoriety. Consider change.org, a petitions website popular among students at Yeshiva. Gather enough support for a petition on change.org, and the White House, through its We The People platform, has committed to respond. Do we realize how surreal this all is, that one individual citizen can generate a petition based on something he or she believes in and demand a response? To provide some perspective, if one browses the change.org petitions, they range from “Tell Trader Joe’s to Go 100% Cage-Free” and “Prevent the EPA from Banning Vehicle Modification” to “Protect Women Worldwide” and “Justice 4 Caitlyn,” a plea for an abused dog in South Carolina. Justice 4 Caitlyn has over 440,000 supporters, while Protect Women Worldwide has 591,000, and Tell Trader Joe’s to Go 100% Cage-Free has 84,735.
If we look at these statistics, it seems like internet-goers are far more concerned about women’s rights and Caitlyn than they are about cage-free eggs. Which is good. Until one stops to consider the fact that there are actually petitions online which have been supported by tens of thousands of people against cage-free eggs, and hundreds of thousands against a single abused dog. Carrie Tyler’s brother was sentenced to life without parole for a nonviolent drug offense. She’s got 403,300 supporters. Mariel Waters, from Stanford, NJ writes, “We want Jon Stewart to moderate a 2016 presidential debate.” Her post has 339,499 supporters. While many of the issues raised are legitimate and strong, so many of them can be reduced into the category of idle chatter, which does nothing but obstruct what is really important.
But another problem, which is that thanks to the egalitarian nature of writing, is that people have made themselves into authorities on issues they know far too little about. There are times that I wish that we employed some sort of censor who would remove “stupid” comments from people who are just over-eager to have their voices be heard. This censor would determine who had a right to be part of a conversation, and who should be excluded because of a lack of credentials or seasoned, researched argument.
We often forget the impact that our words can have, and the way our simple ideas can resonate with people or alternatively, really upset them. The past few weeks at Yeshiva have again reminded us of the power of the written word, whether in a simple Facebook post or in a full-length article. We cannot abuse this power, and just as the Rabbis caution us regarding our speech, we must take the same precautions in our writing. Our culture and traditions place a high value on the influence of spoken words, and we must apply the same importance to our written words. We must be very careful in what we write, and we must preserve the refinement of this art. We must practice ethical writing.