Zachary Benjamin | Chief Executive Officer Jewish Long Beach
In 1968, our country roiled with crisis and political unease. The back-to-back bullets that felled Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy just weeks apart sent staccato explosions of shock through an American social fabric already threadbare from the death and deep divisions of the Vietnam era.
While I did not live through 1968, I can only imagine that 2020 must feel similar to those who did. Pandemic, economic turmoil, social unrest, and psychological trauma on an unprecedented global scale are stacked atop each other, eroding away our national confidence and threatening the mental, physical, and emotional welfare of each and every American. The numbers push the limits of our comprehension. COVID-19 has taken double the number of American lives in just three months that the Vietnam War took over the course of a decade. In a figurative instant, entire industries collapsed, leaving millions suddenly without means to support their families and themselves.
Amidst this grim and morbid backdrop, the murder of George Floyd provided the spark that ignited the already smoldering tinderbox of race relations in this country. While hundreds of thousands of Americans hungry for systemic change exercised their right to peacefully and nobly assemble in demand of a national evolution, armies of nihilistic opportunists seized the moment to foment chaos, destroying thousands of businesses nationwide— many family- and minority-owned—and plunging us deeper into a widespread malaise of fear, anger, and hopelessness.
Feeding the discord is a seething undercurrent of toxic bile fueled largely by social media. This technology, with Facebook and Twitter as its From the CEO’S Desk – Love Thy Neighbor, Even in the Age of Social Media Zachary Benjamin | Chief Executive Officer Jewish Long Beach standard bearers, has for years slowly chipped away at the foundations of social interaction and discourse, exposing the raw nerves of our fears and frustrations, and providing forums to not only express anger, but to operationalize it publicly and without filter. It is as if our national id has been laid bare and weaponized against those whom the hive mind deems non-compliant with its ideologies and non-adherent to how those ideologies should be expressed. This ad hoc digital vigilante justice system extends not only to those openly expressing abhorrent or morally derelict perspectives, but even, in many cases, to those who choose not to engage or do not engage in ways that indicate sufficient strength of conviction.
While social media can be a powerful tool to educate and communicate, the perfect storm of crisis in which we are currently embroiled has brought to a crescendo its destructive and, perhaps ironically, anti-social impact. There was a time when one’s political, religious, and philosophical perspectives were their own. Not so long ago, one could not demand that a private citizen reveal their views, and the choice to do so was solely that of the individual. Social media has created an environment in which immense pressure is levied on private individuals to publicly express a given political or moral perspective, with failure to do so resulting in potential damage to reputation and, in extreme but increasingly frequent cases, physical threat and even loss of employment.
The toxic discursive landscape that social media has helped create begs a question. When does this brand of moral policing cease merely to be holding our fellow human beings accountable for each other’s actions and instead enter the dangerous territory of legislating and criminalizing thought? Furthermore, social media has compelled us to expend so much energy attempting to determine whose views align with our own—and thus it has generated so much anxiety around whether we can even entertain friendships with those whose perspectives may differ—that it has robbed us of the time and presence of mind to engage in self-care and care for those with whom we share physical spaces.
If a Jewish angle exists, it is in the notion that “love thy neighbor” is a principle that should apply regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, or national origin, and also regardless of whether our neighbor chooses to reveal their personal perspectives, how zealously they do so, or whether those perspectives align with our own. This is not to say that we should allow racism, antisemitism, or any other form of bias and bigotry to enter our spaces. Rather, we should find peace with the notion that those who choose not to share do not necessarily espouse abhorrent viewpoints, and not all who hold views that differ from our own necessarily harbor hateful or destructive ideologies.
In closing, I ask you to join me in a challenge. During these volatile times, to the extent possible, let’s log out. Let’s live presently and heal our hearts. Let us allow ourselves to mourn loss and injustice as human beings living together in a physical ecosystem. Let us wean ourselves from the addiction to information and from the compulsion to know that which lies in the recesses of others’ minds. We owe it to ourselves to lift this burden from our shoulders in a time when we are bent under the weight of so much more.