by David Rosenbaum

How Do You Deal With Hatred Online?

Jul 27, 20074 mins

A disturbing email gets Editor David Rosenbaum thinking about the darker side of online community.

I received an anti-Semitic email the other day.

The email was commenting on my July 1 editor’s letter about whether Google was guilty of nepotism (I thought it was) by investing in its co-founder Sergey Brin’s wife’s company, 23andMe.

The email (which was signed) said that I shouldn’t be talking about nepotism because “Jews are one of the most guilty groups who favor their children and families by bringing them into their business empires, often at the expense of better educated and prepared Gentiles.”

There was more, and worse, but it doesn’t bear repeating.

I was surprised, I guess, by the nakedness of the prejudice (would it have been sent to me if my name weren’t Rosenbaum? Not likely) and the fact that the e-mailer felt secure enough to sign the letter. A little digging revealed that the writer is an IT consultant who operates his own business. At my request, he confirmed that it was indeed he who wrote the letter and added (not surprisingly) that he did not want his comments printed.

Now I’m torn about whether to expose him.

On the one hand, receiving ugly letters is part of the price one pays when one writes about public issues. I’ve gotten them before; I’m sure I’ll get them again.

On the other hand, remaining silent in the face of blatant prejudice, shrugging it off as a lunatic’s ravings, letting it go because I don’t want to engage with this brand of vileness (and believe me, I don’t), rising above it because I don’t want to sully myself—well, these strategies have backfired in the past with disastrous consequences.

I assume that this man does business with Jewish people. Don’t the people he does business with have a right to know what he thinks about them? And isn’t it possible, even likely, that if he holds these views about Jews, he may be equally prejudiced against other groups, other minorities? African-Americans or Asians or Latinos or Catholics?

Outing this bigot, however, could have a substantial impact on his life and business and who knows what the fall-out might be? Say he has a family? Should they be humiliated and punished because their husband/son/father is an anti-Semite? Should his e-mail to me cost him his livelihood, his place in the community?

Part of me says yes. Part of me says bigots should not feel safe in engaging in hate speech. Part of me says the hell with him. He brought it upon himself; let the chips fall where they may.

And part of me says, David, you can’t foresee all the consequences. Tread carefully. Take the path likely to do the least damage. Be prudent. Let it go. Put it in the trash where it belongs.

And then there’s the question of whether engaging in this sort of public debate on is germane to our site’s mission. We invite you, our readers, to comment on what we write, but your responses are not always confined to the points at issue. Sometimes, as in this case, these comments can take the form of ugly, ad hominem attacks, often anonymous, not just against us, but against other readers. The seeming veil of anonymity the web provides disinhibits certain people, encouraging them to reveal the worst aspects of their nature and emboldening cowards.

Should we delete these attacks, practice editorial hygiene, thereby distorting the character of the debate? Or should we allow these comments on our site, reflecting reality but at the same time allowing the loonies and jerks a forum to inflict their ignorance and bile on our readers?

These questions will have to be answered by us, the writers and editors, but they affect you, the reader. As for the bigoted e-mailer and what to do about him, I’m still thinking.