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BINTEL BRIEFAn online friend didn’t realize their remark was antisemitic — but didn’t apologize. Am I wrong to want more?

Understanding has to cut both ways, but it’s hard to figure out what that looks like

The Forward has been solving reader dilemmas since 1906 in A Bintel Brief, Yiddish for a bundle of letters. Send us your quandaries about Jewish life, love, family, friends or work via email, Twitter or this form.

Dear Bintel, 

I am a member of a pop culture fan community, and involved with some fandom-related Discord groups. There is one invite-only Discord community that I run, and in general it’s a good group. Most of the people I’ve known for nearly five years now, and have a pretty good idea of their character as we regularly discuss political issues, our personal lives, and other things we enjoy, not just fandom-related topics. Disagreements between people on the server are rare.

Which is why it was a shock when I found one person in the Discord saying that a situation involving Gov. Josh Shapiro of Pennsylvania was the one time they were “glad a Shapiro came out on top.” My heart dropped to my stomach, but it felt off to me. Suspecting that they were comparing Gov. Shapiro to the political commentator Ben Shapiro, I tried to warn them that it was a poor choice of words/phrasing. They didn’t respond and I was left with growing discomfort as I saw them chatting away in other Discord groups and in other parts of the fan community while ignoring my message. 

No one else responded either and I got anxious, so I asked people on an unrelated server what they thought of the message, in case I was overreacting. A non-Jewish friend said they didn’t know that Shapiro was a name of Jewish origin before I brought it up, so maybe the other person didn’t either. 

A bit relieved, I privately messaged the first person to let them know that what they said sounded antisemitic, but that I didn’t think they’d meant it that way. I also let them know that by ignoring my message for so long, they had made me very uncomfortable.

They confirmed they had no idea about Shapiro being a common name of Jewish origin, and that the governor and Ben Shapiro were the only two people they knew of with that last name. We had a very brief conversation about how their words could be construed as antisemitic, and they thanked me for the clarity and deleted the offending message. All great steps toward solving this issue. But that was it.

There was no apology of any kind. Not for the unintended slip up, or for making me so uncomfortable.

Now I am left with the feeling that an apology was needed for me to fully walk away from this situation, but that if I go back and ask for one, I will only get a canned apology and be considered a jerk.

Where do I go from here? Should I just drop it?

To drop or not to drop

Dear Drop,

The internet can be a wild and wooly place in a lot of ways — misogyny, racism, homophobia and definitely antisemitism. And, as is the case with antisemitism throughout history, a lot of it is just veiled enough to have plausible deniability. 

Someone might make a dog-whistle reference to the Rothschilds or George Soros running the world, but then claim they’re not talking about The Jews — they’re just talking about a few specific rich and evil Jews. Aren’t they allowed to have opinions on public figures? 

Or when people talk about “globalists” — a secret cabal trying to take over the world whose members definitely might be Jewish but no one is saying they all are so it’s OK, right?

All that goes to say: I get where you’re coming from. Especially if you grew up in a place with a lot of Jews, it may be hard to believe that people don’t know Shapiro is a common Jewish surname. And yet your own focus group of two suggests … some people don’t.

On the other hand, the internet also encourages a lot of reactivity and black-and-white thinking. In the past few years, we’ve seen so many people get canceled very publicly — sometimes for legitimate reasons, sometimes for really stupid ones. Outrage drives clicks and algorithms therefore encourage a culture that promotes leaping to conclusions and self-righteous policing of each other’s behavior. 

There’s usually two ways to respond to this. One is the kind of increased siloing we see across the internet: If you’re criticized in a certain space, you leave it. The other is the Notes App apology — or, more recently, the Instagram story apology or the YouTube video apology or the Twitter apology — which has become a common part of online life. 

Basically, people type up whatever words they think will make the hubbub go away, and then post them widely, often in a screenshot of a paragraph typed up in the Notes App. But they’re not really known for their sincerity. There’s a certain format to them: Usually, they open with an apology, but then remind everyone that they didn’t really do anything wrong. For example, when various public figures have been accused of saying something antisemitic, they’ve replied with something along the lines of, “Sorry, I didn’t know that was wrong to say, but I’m definitely not antisemitic — in fact, I’m a huge supporter of Israel, even bigger than most Jews.”

Alas, while these manners of apology have become an accepted way to shut down a cancellation or respond to criticism online, they often don’t feel, as you noted, particularly sincere.

Your Shapiro Jokester didn’t double down or avoid you, to their credit. Instead, they took the feedback openly, learned from it and deleted the post. Maybe they said something like “my bad” or “oh no, that’s on me,” which are often used nearly interchangeably with “sorry” in casual conversation. They even thanked you for telling them, which is worth a lot — it’s nearly unheard of online.

Apologies serve a couple important purposes: To acknowledge the harm done, to take responsibility and to show gained understanding. I understand that you still feel like the first part is missing, but your Discord friend absolutely nailed the rest. Especially in the case of antisemitism, which people often deny or don’t understand, I think that’s worth a lot.

In addition to cultivating fun new forms of hate speech or dog whistles, the internet is also great at encouraging self-righteousness and reactivity. But this person refrained from those reactions — and so should you.

They felt like they were making a harmless joke, yet they still listened and learned. You felt like they were saying something awful, but discovered they had no malice. In the name of fighting the kind of outrage that makes the internet so poisonous, you should choose to be generous. Don’t reward this person’s open mindedness by beating them over the head for an innocent mistake.

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