Repentance and Forgiveness in the Age of YouTube

A video or photo only shows us one moment that has been recorded and displayed for us to see. But a person is not defined by a moment in time or a series of events.

Rabbi Eliyahu Fink.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink
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Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice holds hands with his wife, Janay Palmer, as they arrive at Atlantic County Criminal Courthouse in Mays Landing, N.J.
Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice holds hands with his wife, Janay Palmer, as they arrive at Atlantic County Criminal Courthouse in Mays Landing, N.J.Credit: AP
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink.
Rabbi Eliyahu Fink

Video and photographic evidence of callous violence or other abhorrent acts have changed our world, and the case of former Baltimore Ravens star Ray Rice is only the latest example. It is now much more difficult for people to hide their despicable behavior when the world can view it on screens of every size. The images that become seared into our brains and the collective outrage they generate, creates new challenges for a modern virtuous society.

Everyone is in agreement about the immorality of athletes like Rice beating their significant other or child. Many feel the NFL must police its players and ban individuals who cause physical harm to others outside the gridiron. Others feel that the criminal justice system is better equipped to deal with this sort of thing.

But it seems that as these scandals unfold, there is a different, very important conversation that also needs to happen. When high-profile figures like Rice commit a violent or abhorrent act, it lives on eternally. Long after the act is over and done, the videos and photos replay in on our screens and in our minds. The empathetic pain for the victims that we experience each time those images flicker in front of our eyes, long after their actual wounds have healed.

A video or photo only shows us one moment that has been recorded and displayed for us to see. But a person is not defined by a moment in time or a series of events. People are much more complex and have millions of interactions throughout their lives where they act virtuously or at least non-violently. Those events are not recorded and shared across the universe. The thin slice of their lives that we do see is skewed to the extreme negative behavior that becomes newsworthy. Observed in isolation, these events come to define the person – even though we know no single incident can really define anyone.

This is a new world problem. News used to cover people in our families and tribe or community. Eventually this gave way to covering the news about cities and larger social structures. We went from hearing about people we knew and cared about to hearing about complete strangers in their most exposed moments. The former contextualized bad news and gave people the opportunity to forgive. But now we have intimate information about those we’ve never met, and that means little context and rare opportunities for forgiveness.

We somehow need to adapt to this new reality. Digital natives – those born into the Internet age - are more likely to grant Internet news and discussion less meaning and importance than older Internet users. They are accustomed to this thin slicing and therefore more likely to contextualize it on their own. Eventually, this might become an accepted norm. Still, digital natives are not immune - and the rest of us are learning - that we are ill-equipped to handle information overload.

We overvalue the thin slice. When people act badly, we tend to define them by their bad behavior while we would never want others to define us by our worst moments. We would never define ourselves by our darkest secrets. It’s true that most of would never commit heinous crimes such as domestic abuse. But whatever they may be, the sins we have committed don’t represent who we are. Certainly, serious crimes that are committed, discovered, and proven in a court of law demand punishment. But being punished still should not mean that the convicted is defined by his crimes. If anything, it implies that a debt is being paid, or has been paid to society and once his term is served, the convicted is ready for re-acceptance into the community.

Much of the time, however, there is no conviction in court when it comes to misdeeds. In its place we should accept contrition, regret, attempts to make amends, and commitment to better behavior in the future as indications that the person refuses to be defined by his sins. Those are the Jewish steps of repentance. When we see others walk down this path, we should accept them. If they have repented, they should be forgiven.

But today’s society is very unforgiving, and technology has made it more so. We have long memories and this give one’s sins a bigger piece of the character pie, especially when they are caught on video. We remain incredibly skeptical of people who have done everything they can to rehabilitate their lives and spread love and kindness. But people do change, they do regret their misdeeds, they want to do better, and much of the time, they succeed in doing better. We must allow them that opportunity.

As we approach the High Holidays, character assessment and self improvement are on our minds. We know in our hearts that our own attempts at reconciliation and repentance are genuine and the behavior we are repenting is not the entirety of our character.

We should want others to treat us the way we treat them. Find the best in others. Don’t let the worst of them define who they are in our eyes. In order to stand a chance of surviving Divine scrutiny we cannot be defined by our failures. It seems the first thing we must do to earn this courtesy is by granting it to others.

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