Lessons for Engaging Others on Twitter (Or in Any Conversation)

Aug 13, 2020 by

Sandy Kress –

After a discussion between Rav Yehudah and Rav Yechezekel, Shmuel rebuked Rav Yehudah for the manner in which he corrected his father (for saying, “we maintain your argument is not well founded”):

 “Sharp one, do not speak to your father in this manner, for it has been taught: One whose father was violating Torah law – should not say to him, ‘Father, you violated a Torah law.’ Rather, he should say to him: ‘Father, is such-and-such written in the Torah?’”

 (This alternative response was then re-considered as possibly sarcastic and thus seen as also saying, “You have violated a Torah law.”)

 So, the Gemara concluded: “Rather, the son should say to the father: ‘Father, the following verse is written in the Torah.’ He should then only quote the verse that prohibits the father’s behavior.”

 Sanhedrin 81a

I hope you could follow that.

Essentially, the Talmud recounts a debate between a father and a son over the meaning of a Biblical law. The son flat-out tells his father he’s wrong. An observer, Shmuel, tells the son that, in speaking so bluntly and disrespectfully, he’s embarrassed his father.

A certain teaching was cited to offer a more tactful way to respond to the father. But, after further reflection, it was also deemed insensitive. So, the text concludes by suggesting a polite way that allows the father to see the truth, draw his own conclusions, and act accordingly.

Why is all this important to us?

First, on the surface, this is about how one should treat one’s father. The Bible enjoins us to honor and respect our father.  So, it’s not surprising the Talmud is concerned with how a son handles his father while they discuss differences in Biblical understanding, and counsels a respectful approach.

Second, we’re taught we must respect all our colleagues in debate: “Let the honor of …your colleague be as the reverence for your teacher, and the reverence for your teacher as the reverence of heaven.” Pirke Avot 4

From this, I think the teaching extends further. What if it could help us have more constructive conversations with our fellow citizens, including on social media?

I decided earlier this week to try out the lessons I learned from this wisdom to see if they work. I got into an exchange on Twitter that promised to be nasty, but, happily, it turned out reasonably well.

What did I do? How did it work out? Could it possibly work again?

First, I learned in Shmuel’s first words of address to the son (“Sharp one,”) that while one should be bright, one shouldn’t be harsh. So, I started the tweet encounter with a mindset of trying to be keen, but also benevolent.

Second, I avoided telling the fellow he got it wrong. The Talmud taught me this would be wasteful and disrespectful – wasteful because it would use up a lot of my 280 characters, and disrespectful because it would fail to honor the earnest belief on his part that his views are decent and right.

My strongest course was to state the best facts and law I had to support my position, with the idea that the truth, if seen and understood by the other side, would move him more than anything else. As with the son and the father, a change of mind typically only happens when people learn and then draw their own conclusions.

Will this approach guarantee good will? Will it move people to agree? No guarantees, and probably not quickly.

My encounter didn’t end with either conceding to the other. But, while it started nasty, it ended peaceably. Facts and strong arguments replaced ad hominem attacks and high-handedness.

Over time, I think this approach offers hope. It should. It’s grounded in an old-fashioned adage that’s as practical as it’s ethical: love your neighbor as yourself.

Source: Lessons for Engaging Others on Twitter (Or in Any Conversation) | Sandy Kress

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