on being re-sensitized
I listened to the episodes of Reply All about Shulem Deen. Shulem was raised as an ultra-orthodox Hasidic Jew. He spent his youth as part of the Skverer Hasidic community in Williamsburg, a neighborhood in Brooklyn. He moved to New Square, an all-Skverer community about 40 miles north of New York City, where he spent most of his young adulthood. He had an arranged marriage and, in accordance with his god's command to be fruitful and multiply, became the father of five children.
The Skverers don't eschew all technology like the Amish or the most conservative Mennonite sects, but they forbid any technology that could provide a link to the secular world. They freely use appliances like refrigerators and microwaves, but it's considered heretical to own a radio. It's okay to have a tape player for religious sermons and other kosher programming, but if the tape player has a radio, you're expected to remove the antenna and glue the switch permanently in the "tape" position.
When personal computers were first introduced, they were firmly in the "appliance" category. They were like more powerful adding machines, useful for running a business or organizing your documents. Shulem was working as a substitute teacher in the mid-90s, so when he got a computer, he was intending to use it to help make worksheets and hand-outs for his classes. His computer came with a floppy disk with a free trial of AOL. He didn't know what it was. He followed the instructions, plugged his phone line into the computer, and got online.
Reply All is a show about the internet, so they focused mainly on the role of the internet in Shulem's transformation, but of course that's not all that was going on. Growing up in Williamsburg and spending more time around other less-orthodox sects meant that Shulem was more worldly than the other New Square residents from the start. He had grown up in an environment where a certain amount of exposure to the secular world was unavoidable, and he was one of the only people in New Square who spoke fluent English. He had friends outside the sect with whom he would visit, talk about heretical topics, and watch movies. He had a car, which wasn't strictly forbidden in New Square—no community can truly be fully self-sufficient, and it was an unfortunate reality that providing for the community required transportation, but anyone who drove their own car was viewed with suspicion. Shulem would use his to go to the library, where he started his knowledge quest by reading the World Book Encyclopedia in the children's section to fill in the gaps in his extremely religious education.
The internet, especially in the early days, was mostly a way for him to connect with other people, namely other orthodox and formerly-orthodox jews. He started a blog, Hasidic Rebel, which ran from 2003-2012. As he lived this secret second life, he became increasingly disillusioned with the willful ignorance, misogyny and intense pressure to conform. He grew increasingly distant from his wife (who he talked to for 7 minutes before they were engaged to be married) and community as his apostasy became harder and harder to hide. Eventually, he was outed as the anonymous author of Hasidic Rebel and forced to leave New Square. He and his family tried to build a new life in another Hasidic community, but the distance between Shulem and his wife was a rickety bridge of impossible crossing. Eventually they cut off contact. He lost everyone.
You can read the full story in his memoir, All Who Go Do Not Return. It's excellent, I read it in a weekend. My story isn't nearly as dramatic or heartbreaking or inspirational, but I wanted to talk about internet filters.
In part 2, Sruthi Pinnamaneni talks a bit about the role of the internet in present-day New Square. The leaders of the community realized that they couldn't continue to ignore the internet the way they ignored television for decades; it's too big, too tempting, too accessible, too easy to hide. So they took a similar approach that they did with radio: they broke off the metaphorical antenna.
Sruthi talked to the proprietor of a New Square internet café about his business. The computers were mainly used to access kaveshtiebel, an all-yiddish PHPBB forum that serves as sort of a Hasidic intranet. Other web sites are available, but only with extremely draconian filters. The New York Times is verboten. The New York Post is available, but only a stripped-down version that shows a few headlines and no images. ("I like this version", Sruthi quipped.)
At one point, maybe even as recently as 2015 when the episode was published, I would've found the idea of adults deliberately filtering their own internet access anathema. I used to find this kind of self-policing absurd and infantilizing. But the way I've been using the internet for the last few years is dramatically different, and now I can actually sympathize with the idea of intentionally limiting what information one can see.
Don't get me wrong, I find many of the things Hasidic men—and it is men setting these guidelines—think they need to protect themselves from. The proprietor of the internet café explained that, while Amazon is accessible, and images are displayed if they contain, for example, a toaster, that same image would be completely blacked out of an immodestly dressed woman is holding it. I'm all for accommodating sensitivities, but I don't think "women are people" is an idea men should get to opt out of.
But when they talked about the Post's website, and Sruthi expressed surprise at how stripped down it was, the proprietor said something I've found myself thinking more and more: "why would I want to see all that?"
I was once part of the internet culture that believed it was good to become desensitized. I willingly exposed myself to the worst sights and sounds and ideas imaginable. I was a frequent consumer of Something Awful, Portal of Evil, rotten.com, Stile Project, and a bit later, 4chan and /b/. I was never much of a contributor, but I let the worst of humanity wash over me. I believed there's no such thing as too much information. I truly thought that, by becoming desensitized to the horror, I was developing a sort of armor that would protect me from the bad people in my life. I thought that if I could become fearless and unflappable, I would be immune to the psychological torture of my theoretical bullies. The Mindless Self Indulgence lyric became my credo: "There is nothing you can do that I have not already done to myself."
It didn't work. As a neurodivergent person with severe social anxiety, I already felt alienated from everyone around me, and desensitizing myself did nothing but further alienated me from the kinds of people I wanted to be around. I was forced to hang out in circles where constant mutual "ironic" abuse was how everyone related to each other, but it's impossible to form real emotional bonds in places where your guard has to be up all the time. I was even less equipped to relate to people in real life than I was before, because by bottling up my empathy and wearing a shield of disaffected irony at all times, I was depriving myself of the universal constant that binds us together: pain.
It is our suffering that brings us together. It is not love. Love does not obey the mind, and turns to hate when forced. The bond that binds us is beyond choice. We are brothers. We are brothers in what we share. In pain, which each of us must suffer alone, in hunger, in poverty, in hope, we know our brotherhood. We know it, because we have had to learn it. We know that there is no help for us but from one another, that no hand will save us if we do not reach out our hand. And the hand that you reach out is empty, as mine is. You have nothing. You possess nothing. You own nothing. You are free. All you have is what you are, and what you give.
The Dispossessed (Ursula LeGuin)
A big part of getting my humanity back has been the use of voluntary filters. It's sort of accepted as a given that we can only have a modicum of control over what we see on the internet, but it doesn't have to be that way. When I joined the fediverse in 2016, I couldn't have known what an impact consent culture would have on my wellbeing and peace of mind. If you talk about anything potentially upsetting, it's expected that you'll put it behind a content warning. Potentially upsetting images are hidden until you choose to engage with them. I can choose not to follow anyone who doesn't participate in this culture, mute or block anyone who stirs up shit, and create filters that prevent me from seeing anything I don't want to see that isn't traditionally CW'd. It is a better way to use the internet. Our brains aren't designed to be conscious of everything happening in the world.
Am I in a bubble? Sure, but when you're at the bottom of the ocean, you need to be in a bubble or you'll drown.
Shocking news is once again shocking, not just part of the cacophonous vortex of information. Violence against people I don't know is a tragedy, not just information to interpret through my ideological lens. I like being sensitive. I like being able to share in others' pain. I like that I feel free to express my own pain, and know that it's valid, and others empathize, and feel emboldened to express their own pain in return. There's no safety in solipsism. There's no comfort in ironic detachment. Without each other we have nothing 🦝