On Ethics and Blogging
Although I am neither a lawyer nor a journalist, I’ve worked pretty extensively in and around the worlds of lawyering and journalism. A common element to both fields is the existence of specialized rules meant to facilitate each profession. These rules are known respectively as legal ethics and journalistic ethics. In my mind, however, I’ve come to think of them not as ethics all, but as hyphen-ethics or, simply -ethics. Yes, I know there aren’t hyphens in either; that’s just the way I think of them.
Hyphen-ethics, are, ultimately, rules of a game. In some ways, they are an attempt at codifying ethical rules around the inevitable ethical dilemmas confronting lawyers and journalists. In theory, these would be the results of a sophisticated application of true ethics to complex situations involving competing ethical considerations. In practice, however, they often appear to be gross deviations from any kind of real ethics. In practice, also quite unlike real ethics, they are dodges behind which to hide gross moral outrages at least as often as they are rules which actually make demands on the practitioners.
Now, our society may have decided that the games are important enough to the overall functioning of society that the creation of these rules is beneficial, and there certainly is merit to that argument. Would I want to exist in a system where nobody schooled in the law guided and represented citizens? Could I justify a society where the press was inhibited and information flow limited? Fair challenges – but I never was able to reconcile myself to the idea that there is any morality in recording or reporting on the pain or death of a human being rather than intervening to stop the suffering or save the life. And I never could stomach the idea that my belief in the justice of a client’s cause was irrelevant to my duty to pursue vigorously his interests through the instrumentalities of the law. Two wrongs, I guess, I am asserting, never make a right.
But wait — those who know me might protest — aren’t you a registered lobbyist? Don’t you pursue clients’ interests for pay? Yes, and although lobbying is only a small part of what I do, I still represent clients’ interests for pay. But I have intentionally arranged my life (all thanks to Hashem for enabling me to do so) so that, without exception, I only take on clients and causes in which I believe. I never was able to do that as a lawyer. (In fact, I have a great track record as a lobbyist and I attribute much of my success to the fact that I?ve always believed in the justice of my causes. I was a miserable lawyer because I really did not, or, at least, because I knew it was not a relevant consideration.)
Another side effect of these rules is the self-importance they seem to bestow on adherents. Lawyers and journalists as groups each often act as though they belong to some kind of priesthood. And why not? If what you do — what you are — is so important as to remove you from the same ethical considerations as the rest of society; if you are permitted to do things nobody else can by dint of membership in some club, doesn’t that identification somehow make you more important than everyone else?
Enter the latest hyphen-ethics: blogging ethics.
I may participate in blogging, but I am not a blogger. I am a Jew. I am an American Jew. As a Jew and an American, I am bound religiously, morally, ethically to Halacha, American law, and the dictates of my conscience – my Sechel Ha’enoshi.
So, unless someone can explain to me why I should feel bound to blogging ethics I hereby declare my intention to remove, retroactively, any post of mine which, upon reflection, I find to contain halachically or ethically problematic material. Nobody has appointed me to be the guardian of anything, and so I am guardian of nothing except myself. In fact, I’m not sure why I shouldn’t feel free to go back in and edit anything at all that I’ve written. If someone has responded to it, then in the interests of honesty, I should not make that person’s energy have been wasted or that person to look foolish, as if she responded to something I did not write. But if I see no evidence that anyone has responded to me or quoted something I’ve written, I’m not sure why I need to feel bound to keep it out there if it no longer represents my thinking — or, worse, if it was written in such a way as not to accurately have reflected my intentions at the time I wrote it or it chas veshalom causes damage to anyone.
There will be times when honesty compels me to indicate that something was removed or altered — but normal rules of ethics (and, I suppose, the halachic implications of geneivas da’as) should suffice to guide such decisions, without the pompous artificiality and rationalization of hyphen-ethics.
This clearly is a very sensitive matter and it’s helpful to see an integration of “hyphen-ethics” into a larger ethical fame. I’d like to raise a concern regarding the retroactive removal of material. It strikes me that the act of erasing “halachically or ethically problematic material” and material that, “chas veshalom causes damage to anyone,” is a form of making teshuvah. But teshuvah usually is a response to actions that cannot be undone, and tocheicha and teshuvah do not imply the erasure of those actions. Yet erasure — deletion/removal from the blog — is exactly what you contemplate here. Putting the blog into the context of a larger ethical frame, one cannot erase the “damage,” as it were, of posting problematic material and/or of causing harm to someone — one can only erase the evidence of that damage. [JB – My purpose was not to offer a form of teshuva (although, in fact, teshuva can, indeed, imply erasure), but to indicate that I don’t feel bound by any “bloggers’ rules” which supplant ethics. There will be times when it will be necessary to indicate what transpired in various ways, including, possibly, the ways you indicate. But, for example, I see no reason to leave posted false information, or even true information which is hurtful to another and has no real to’eles in being made public. The longer that material is on the web, the more people read it, the worse the damage and the greater the sin. The act of leaving such information out there is an ongoing problem, not a past damage.]
How, then, to accomplish removal or alteration — even when one indicates that material has been removed or altered — without appearing to perpetuate a cover-up? One way is to issue apologies, corrections, and/or retractions, rather than to delete the offending material. Another way, using blog technology, is to
strike out the material. A third might be to describe in general the material that was there without restating it. I would not presume to tell you which approach to take — but I think it’s not as simple as simply deleting it or writing “[deleted]”. In my view there needs to be at least some acknowledgment of what was there, even if it’s been removed. [JB – As I say, these all may be appropriate in various circumstances.]
A current example: the drubbing that Aish HaTorah is taking in the blogosphere for removing all references to and publications by R. Slifkin and Professor Schroeder seems to me to be a case in point. If you attempt to visit a known link to one of their articles, the URL immediately returns you to a main section page, with no admission that there once was something there. This strikes me as somewhat disingenuous, and it lends its to the perception, accurate or not, that Aish is trying to cover up any evidence that it ever endorsed these articles. Far more appropriate — as I think Aish briefly did at the beginning of the controversy — would be to take the reader to a page saying, “There was an article here by so-and-so, but in light of recent concerns we have removed it pending further review.” At this point it might be sufficient to indicate, “The article you have requested no longer is available from this website.” Such an admission would neither deny the prior existence of the article nor impinge on Aish’s right or obligation to revise/remove its endorsement.