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Gossip Danger

July 22, 2011 – 9:54 am20 Comments

By David Werdiger
“I won’t let my child ever walk home alone again from school”, I heard a mother say, in the wake of the tragic abduction and murder of Leiby Kletzky in the supposedly safe Orthodox Jewish suburb of Boro Park in New York. An alarm and fear has descended upon a global community who until now collectively felt that “these things don’t happen in our neighbourhood”.

The natural reaction of parents is to become extra protective. Between this and the regular breaking news about the alleged cases of sex abuse within our local community have come renewed efforts to educate our children about ‘stranger danger’, and how to pick up the signs of potential abuse. The police team investigating the reports has been recently expanded to meet the huge surge of complaints as victims come forward, the blogosphere and online media are buzzing, and with that, we need renewed efforts to educate ourselves about ‘gossip danger’.

There have been several examples of anonymous accusers naming names in online media and directly accusing individuals of awful crimes. It almost goes without saying that hiding behind a veil of anonymity to accuse others by name is a most cowardly and disingenuous thing to do. Most recently, fake comments have been posted in the name of a known community member in these pages, and it took several hours (during which several people responded to the fake comment) for the moderators to deal with it. It is a constant challenge for the editors of GA and other online media to strike a balance between facilitating free and open debate and ensuring commenters do not impersonate other and laws are not broken. Many accusations and suspicions floating around in some unmoderated blogs are still there!

As important as it is to report suspected crimes to the police, it is equally important to understand how dangerous and damaging public accusations of any kind can be. For us as a community to act collectively to root out the scourge of sexual abuse that has been lurking in the shadows for way too long, we must work with the relevant authorities exclusively, and let them do their jobs. Only by following due process and allowing these things to take their course can we bring about just outcomes. All it takes is one false accusation that blows up into a nasty law suit, or an innocent person’s reputation or family tainted for life, and we will be find ourselves jumping back to the dark culture of secrecy that we are seeking to escape from.

Our natural desire to talk about these things (whether motivated by a desire to protect, or simply nosiness) causes gossip and rumour to spread quickly, and here, people need to apply a simple test. Do they want to help the victims? (after all, it is primarily about the victims, isn’t it?) If they do, then they should consider any discussion about the topic in that light. Talk of “X is about to be arrested”, or “Y was abused as a child”, or “Z is under investigation” not only add nothing (and are probably lashon hara or motzi shem ra), but also may cause victims to feel less willing to come forward, and can destroy the reputation of innocent people. After all, our system of justice presumes innocence until proven otherwise. If we don’t uphold these same standards ourselves, then our community risks becoming a hotbed of fear and suspicion.

A Pandora’s Box has been opened. It cannot (and should not) be closed. If we don’t find the right balance in the way we deal with these matters, we will only do our community more harm.

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