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The Practice Corner: Keeping Your “Friends” Close

by Daniel DeWoskin
Trial Attorney

In general, I am the type of person who can separate the views of others from who they are as people. This is important for everyone, but especially for lawyers. I engage in this exercise routinely with clients and opposing counsel, whose personal views on any given subject may be the opposite of my own. Even in the case when we are not able to see eye-to-eye, we can always respect one another’s right to have a different opinion.

There are times when this separation of a person from an opinion becomes much more difficult, and relationships become strained. Recent events between Israel and Gaza found me in just such a position. Of all things, it was actually social media that raised issues for me. I, like many of my close friends and social media “friends,” hold strong opinions on the subject. I do not have black and white views, nor am I in any way reluctant to keep an open mind and have a dialogue on the subject without feeling slighted, angry, or disconcerted that my friends and others do not share my views.

In light of recent hostilities, I tried to keep my opinions to myself on social media, noticing that the vitriol on this particular subject was reaching new elevations. The restraint I was showing grew more and more troubling for me as I saw people who I know should be above doing so name-calling and becoming far more engaged in an angry attempt to have the last word with people they have never even met. Still, I kept quiet.

The moment at which I myself broke down and entered the fray, was when I had to discontinue a social media contact with an attorney that I greatly respect. This particular attorney had been posting news articles that were completely biased and, in many respects, presented information that was not factually true. Once again, I would have few social media friends if presenting factually incorrect stories was my sole criteria for dumping someone. It was not until this friend used the term “Zio-nazi” in several posts that I decided our views were now so at odds that I could hardly separate the views from the man.

At this point, I was engaged. I felt compelled to address how offensive I found this particular term, and that I am able to have an intelligent discussion with someone who does not support Israel without calling or considering that person an anti-Semite. The use of this term seemed to invite me to disregard any distinguishing between their politics and their hateful and reckless use of language.

More than anything, I was compelled to defend the term “Zionism,” to prevent it from being relegated to the same category as the “n” word, or even the “r” word that has become outdated, misused, insulting, and obsolete for all but stand-up comedians. I do not want to get so far afield in defending Zionism in this article that I lose sight of the larger picture, how could I continue to respect and consider a person who would use the term “Zio-nazi?”

I immediately severed social media ties with this person. I began to post articles that I felt were more enlightened on the issue. As I found myself more and more entrenched, I noticed that I, too, was striking nerves in friends who did not agree with my positions. By no means was I calling any of my friends names or insulting them for their beliefs, but I was attacking public figures whom some of my friends respected and felt called to defend. It was at this point that I knew I needed to reassess what was taking place.

We all know that conversations are different in person than they are in a public forum, especially a forum such as social media. Culturally, many of us are not only less concerned about privacy issues than we have been in the past, but we are willing to flaunt opinions, emotions, “statuses,” and anything and everything else on social media sites. This can bring us closer with friends and acquaintances who live more distant or with whom we have less personal contact, but it can also serve to alienate those with whom we may have previously chosen not to engage in certain topics.

My point is that while it is one thing to be able to separate one’s opinions or beliefs in a personal setting, the lack of context that is intrinsic in a social media forum creates a potentially insurmountable obstacle for doing so at times. We must be cognizant of how an offhand remark or humorous comment here or there can forever change the opinions that others think about us. It is far too easy to lose sight of this fact, as I myself have done on occasion.

Not all our “friends” are our friends. Some are colleagues. Some are acquaintances, distant relatives, friends of friends, people we have not met, our peers, our elders, people we would want to have a beer with, and people we would want nothing to do with. Although some of us are more discerning as to whom they give access to and some are less discerning, the fact remains that the forum is open and available to anyone who can see and read it on a computer screen.

It goes without saying that we all must be cautious as to how we vent and how we simply share our thoughts and ideas in a public or semi-private forum, but we must also try to be mindful of how we consider and respect or disrespect those whom we engage in those very forums. For better or for worse, the conversations in a social media forum are not the same as those that would take place in a crowded restaurant in many, many respects.

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