Opinion: Cutting Remarks, Or Vis-A-Bris Trolls

August 4, 2020

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It started, perhaps as it always does, fairly innocently. Sunday was the bris (circumcision) of my great nephew and because of COVID rules we could not be there. I had travelled to Israel in the past for such an occasion and now I would not be able to attend this celebration, which was taking place a few blocks away.

And so, as anyone would do in 2020, I shared my disappointment on Twitter. “Today is my great-nephew’s bris (circumcision). It will take place down the road, but we can’t be there. In the past I would have flown around the world to celebrate but now we will zoom it from a few blocks away. Today I really hate this #Covid-19 reality.” I wrote this partly to indicate that we are all in this together, partly to encourage people to adhere to social distancing regulations and partly because I wanted to share how I was feeling.

At first, I received the responses that I thought I would. People shared their own experiences, people wished me mazal tov and others told me to look on the bright side. And then, just when I least expected it, I received the following message. “In a normal world, cops would be called. They would come and protect the baby from this ritual of penile sacrifice, handcuff the mohel and the parents and put them in jail for mutilation and rape.” I was shocked. And in my shock I responded: “Penile sacrifice? (laughing face, laughing face) Rape? Gosh, all I was upset about was missing the smoked salmon bagels. You lot have it much worse!” It turns out that anti-circumcisers don’t much in the way of a sense of humour, because they called my response the “laugh of impunity”. It also turned out to be the tip of that iceberg (so to speak), because for two days I was sent a barrage of messages from accounts with names like “Stop cutting boys” and others who believe that everyone has the right to the “genitalia that they were born with”.

Recently, on my radio show, I invited listeners to suggest songs that would be fitting to play in honour of this occasion. They were true to form and suggested titles like The First Cut Is The Deepest and Cuts Like A Knife. Good times.

By the following day, I had grown bored with the level of drama and had moved on. I couldn’t imagine focusing on this for more than I already had, and I guess that this mob had found someone else to harass.

For me the incident was nothing more than a few hours of good clean fun. But it could also have been unnerving (if I were sensitive), and if I took the vitriol seriously. Perhaps, if the subject matter was different, I could have been personally triggered by it, it might have impacted on me.

Which is what is happening on social media. Adriaan Basson, editor of News24, announced that he will no longer be active on Twitter. “It is time to move on from social media platform Twitter, which has become dominated by hateful, ignorant and divisive content.” Basson, in his role in media, has other outlets to debate and to engage, but for most, Twitter and other social media platforms are important arenas in which to engage.

A grave danger to freedom of expression and to debate is the aggressive mob approach to social media. There are no simple solutions, but the problem is clear. If we don’t find a better way to engage, it will be more than the smoked salmon that we will lose.

Howard Feldman is Head of Marketing & People at Synthesis.

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