Jeffrey Rosen Wants You To Learn New Forms of Empathy

Jeffrey Rosen’s New York Times Magazine cover story about privacy on the web went up today. The basic idea is that everything we put on the Internet stays on the Internet forever, which makes Mr. Rosen sad because he doesn’t want to live in a world where so much can be held against a person. Mr. Rosen talked to a lot of professors for this piece, and concluded that hopefully we all get nicer in the future and start forgiving one other for all the terrible and/or embarrassing things we’ve said and done.  As he puts it, “It’s often said that we live in a permissive era, one with infinite second chances. But the truth is that for a great many people, the permanent memory bank of the Web increasingly means there are no second chances – no opportunities to escape a scarlet letter in your digital past. Now the worst thing you’ve done is often the first thing everyone knows about you.”

Here’s the best part of the piece, in which Mr. Rosen– author of 2000’s The Unwanted Gaze: The Destruction of Privacy in America— compares privacy in the “global village” of 2010 with privacy “in actual, small villages long ago”:

In the villages described in the Babylonian Talmud, for example, any kind of gossip or tale-bearing about other people — oral or written, true or false, friendly or mean — was considered a terrible sin because small communities have long memories and every word spoken about other people was thought to ascend to the heavenly cloud. (The digital cloud has made this metaphor literal.) But the Talmudic villages were, in fact, far more humane and forgiving than our brutal global village, where much of the content on the Internet would meet the Talmudic definition of gossip: although the Talmudic sages believed that God reads our thoughts and records them in the book of life, they also believed that God erases the book for those who atone for their sins by asking forgiveness of those they have wronged. In the Talmud, people have an obligation not to remind others of their past misdeeds, on the assumption they may have atoned and grown spiritually from their mistakes. “If a man was a repentant [sinner],” the Talmud says, “one must not say to him, ‘Remember your former deeds.’ “

In his discussion of developing social norms, Mr. Rosen notes that he has been to some dinner parties lately where people have said, in seriousness, “Please don’t tweet this,” a phenomenon you can read more about in this piece from the Observer‘s recent Secrets Issue.