Friday, October 8, 2010

Noah and Ham, Tyler and Dharun

Imagine this scenario:  “Joe,” either accidentally or intentionally, observes “Frank” in a very compromising position.  Rather than apologizing, Joe brings others to observe the same embarrassing moment.  As a result, “Frank” is shamed not only in the eyes of one but of many people.  In the end, Joe is marginalized or punished by society while Frank is embarrassed and feels diminished for what must feel like an eternity.  Can you imagine such a situation?  Does it sounds vaguely familiar? It should.

This week, after surviving the destruction of the world by Divine Flood, disembarking from the Ark he built and receiving his charge from God to rebuild and repopulate the world, Noah plants a vineyard.  He harvests the grapes and drinks far too much of the wine.  What happens next is stunning: Noah’s son, Ham father of Canaan, “sees” him drunk in his tent.  What Noah is doing in the tent, whether or not he is clothed, etc, is not clear but the tone indicates that he is doing something a parent would not want their child to see.  

The midrash is rife with speculation as to what Ham does next.  What he does not do is clear: He does not avert his eyes or move to prevent further embarrassment to his father.  Instead, Ham tells his two brothers, Shem and Yafet, what happened.  In trying to explain Ham’s actions, the Pesikta Zutra, an 11th century collection of midrashim, asks:

And what could Ham have done?  He “saw” intentionally and of his own will when he could have hid his eyes and chosen to avert his gaze.  “And he told them...” in mockery and with revelry.  Therefore, he was punished...  

Long before digital video cameras and cell phones with cameras and the internet, one person discovered another person in a compromising position and rather than choosing to prevent shame chose to increase the shame and humiliation by inviting others to join in the mockery.  In the eyes of the Torah, and in a world with only a few people, such shaming was punished with eternal servitude which I think all would agree is a strong consequence designed to  teach something about the severity of humiliating another.

Noah’s world was small, just a handful of people.  According to the Census Bureau, our world is just shy of 6.9 BILLION people.  If Ham lived today, he would have discovered his father in a compromising position, taken out his Flip camera, shot the footage and then sent it to his brothers via e-mail.  Not stopping there, Ham would have posted the video on his blog via YouTube, sent out tweets with a link to the site, and put up a note about it on his facebook page.  In the blink of an eye, before his brothers even had a chance to open the e-mail let alone call Ham and tell him to take the video down immediately, before they chastised him, millions of people might have seen the video because it was “forwarded” to them by a friend, moving the shameful incident from a private family matter to a world-wide humiliating phenomenon.

This past week, Tyler Clementi, a talented musician and student at Rutgers University, leaped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his private sexual encounter with another male student in his dorm room was transmitted across the school by his roommate (Dharun and another person) who, from another room, activated a webcam and then sent the video message to others.  Shamed and despondent, Clementi chose to tragically end his young life rather than endure the public humiliation started by his roommate and irretrievable once put on the internet.  This was another recent suicide caused by people using the internet to damage and harm others in a public sphere that, if it “goes viral,” can literally be viewed over and over again by hundreds of millions of people.  

In an article in the Huffington post, Daniel Solove cites studies indicating that

...more than 40% of young people claim to have been victimized by cyberbullying at some point in their lives. Countless victims suffer emotional distress, leading to mental breakdowns and a number of suicides.

He argues, and I agree, that the reasons for the increase in cyberbullying and its consequences are many:

One of the reasons this is occurring is because we aren't doing a sufficient job combating cyberbullying. Another reason is that we are failing to educate young people about privacy and the consequences of self-disclosure and revelation of information about others. The members of the generation growing up today -- what I call "Generation Google" -- must live with extensive information about themselves online, available anywhere in the world by doing a simple Google search. Their lives are being affected in profound ways, and they are not being given adequate guidance and education about privacy.

Not only are we not doing a good job as a society of training our young people, we send very mixed messages about privacy and self-disclosure, as Daniel Solove reminds us, for children and teens today

Various websites urge people to share more. In many subtle and not-so-subtle ways, sites are encouraging people to disclose more intimate information. Despite occasional weak warnings such as "Think before you post," the predominant message is "Please share everything about yourself"...Information about young people can readily be used by kidnappers, molesters, and others bent on doing them harm. It can also be exploited by identity thieves...

As parents, adults, friends, we have an obligation to teach our children about the power of words, about the power of technology, and about the power of humiliation, self-humiliation and the humiliating of others.  No website or school training program can ever be as successful as we can at instilling good judgement in children.  And when they make a mistake in this arena, we need to apply clear, strong consequences so that the lesson will be learned.

This Shabbat, when sitting down to dinner, I hope that you will join me in talking about Noah and Ham and what happened that night at the tent.  I hope you will  talk about the wrong response - shaming - and the proper response, that of Shem and Yafet of defending the person being bullied, standing up and stopping the cyberbullying.  I hope you will talk frankly about bullying, both in-person bullying and cyberbullying, and reinforce the clear messages and expectations for online conduct I am certain you regularly send to your children.  And I hope you will remember Tyler Clementi, Phoebe Prince, Alexis Pilkington and the thousands of others who have been victimized by cyberbullying.  Who knows?  If these  conversations take place at family dinner tables all over the country, perhaps we can help can bring an end to this scourge or at least make our own children think twice or three times before putting something up on the web that will embarrass themselves or others, or maybe by opening the door through such conversations, we can prevent a suffering child, one we don’t know is being cyberbullied, from cutting their own life short, as the Sages remind us:

One who saves one life is as if she or he has saved an entire world.

Shabbat Shalom.

To read Daniel Solove’s article, The Clementi Suicide, Privacy, and How We Are Failing Generation Google

go to:

An excellent resource on the web concerning bullying, teasing, and parenting in a digital world can be found at

Here is another helpful resource for preventing cyberbullying:

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