Can the Talmud save us from structural stupidity?

by Brian on July 3, 2022

in In the News,Jewish Holidays and Culture,Politics,The Old Country

American social psychologist and professor of ethical leadership at New York University Jonathan Haidt published an alarming article in the Atlantic magazine earlier this year that has since gone viral. 

Prof. Jonathan Haidt

In the piece, Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid, he asked provocatively: Is social media compatible with democracy? His somber conclusion: Probably not.

Dr. Micah Goodman, a research fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and author most recently of The Wondering Jew, thinks he has a solution. And it’s taken straight out of Jewish tradition. 

Dr. Micah Goodman

We all need to do a better job at “living Talmudically,” he said during a webinar discussion with Haidt sponsored by Hartman.

In his Atlantic article, Haidt described the impact of sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram on democracy by invoking the metaphor of the Tower of Babel. 

Hubris! God declared, before destroying the tower and “confusing their language so that they may not understand each other.”

“That’s the curse of Babel,” Haidt explained during the webinar. “You live in this modern city, the tower comes down, and you can’t even talk to the people next to you. In the world today, our technology has fragmented our ability to communicate. Ironically, the more connected we are, the more difficult it becomes to share a common story.”

The issue really took hold in 2009 when Facebook added the “like” button and Twitter debuted “retweets.” If, before then, social media was about sharing pictures of your kids, after that it was “all about ‘performing’ to get more engagement,” Haidt said.

And what gets the most engagement? Anger. Fights. Entrenched positions

Social media users have become adept “at putting on performances and managing their personal brand—activities that might impress others but that do not deepen friendships,” Haidt lamented.

By 2014, college campus culture was in the throes of change, “so that we became afraid of saying anything, lest you be publicly shamed and maybe fired,” Haidt noted. When Gen Z began to graduate, “they took those norms into journalism and the arts. So, you see the use of social media to destroy people. We call that cancel culture.” 

The result is “a political and moral homogeneity that leads to structural stupidity,” he concluded. “If people are afraid to say, ‘wait a second, I think that’s wrong’ or ‘here’s some evidence against this or that view,’ then we lose dissent and stupid ideas get elevated. When our institutions also become structurally stupid, our society collapses. We cannot have a liberal democracy without strong institutions.”

Responding to Haidt in the webinar, Goodman blamed our contemporary social pickle on “the law of unintended consequences where, instead of being radically connected, we’ve become radically separated.”

Goodman compared what’s happening today in the “digital revolution” with a previous revolution. “If you were able to ask the entrepreneurs living in London during the industrial revolution if building a steam engine was a good idea, they’d have no clue that, 200 years later, the unintended consequences would lead to global warming and climate change.”

Fast food is a similar story. “French fries are very tasty. They’re cheap and fast,” Goodman exuded. “And now you see a crisis in health in the U.S., with rates of diabetes and obesity soaring.”

What are the unintended consequences of the digital revolution? “Political polarization,” Goodman said. “The only difference is that, because everything is so fast these days, it’s only taken us 10 years to see we’re all going crazy.”

The answers, according to Goodman, lie in the Talmud.

“The Talmud is an ongoing argument,” Goodman said. Unlike most other legal codes which focus on the finalized law, “the Talmud erased the conclusions and canonized the arguments!”

This can be seen most evocatively in the inclusion of opinions from both the houses of Hillel and Shamai. “When we study Talmud, we’re obligated to learn about ideas we don’t live by,” Goodman explained. 

In that sense, the Talmud is essentially a metaphor for dialogue, for hearing opinions we may not agree with, for the sake of unity. 

“Jews are expected to know the opinion of Abaye, but to uphold the opinion of Rava; to study the positions of Shammai but live according to the positions of Hillel,” Goodman wrote in the articleOur Technology Sickness and How to Heal it.

The problem with social media,” Goodman said, is that “it is shrinking our mind to the size of our opinions. And that is an anti-Talmudic world.”

I experienced a dose of social media-powered toxic discourse firsthand recently when reading through the hundreds of comments on my article about puberty blocks and trans teens. Half the posts praised my arguments; the rest were largely vitriolic.

The comment that upset me most was the insinuation that I had no right to write about this topic because I had no skin in the game.

Nothing could be further from the truth. 

The inability – on both sides – to seriously entertain an opposing viewpoint, or to express an opinion without resorting to insults, is exactly what’s tearing society apart. 

Unfortunately, this is not one of those columns where I end with a bit of feel-good advice on how to solve a vexing problem. Yes, we would do better if we could all “live Talmudically,” as Goodman exhorts. I’m just not sure how we get there – or if we even can. 

Let’s just hope, if there’s another flood, metaphorical or real, the survivors on the next “ark” will have the foresight to pack a copy of the Talmud with them.

I first wrote about structural stupidity and the Talmud in The Jerusalem Post.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: