Do Private Remarks Give You A More Accurate Assessment Of A Person?

A few months ago, when the book Game Change came out, Dennis Prager derided the news media’s preoccupation with Senator Harry Reid’s comments about Obama being so successful because he was a light-skinned black man who did not speak with a negro accent unless he wanted to.

Dennis was opposed to the publication of private remarks. He said they did not give you a window into how someone was really thinking. He said the news media’s preoccupation with private remarks was akin to the surveillance tactics of the Stasi in East Germany.

Orthodox rabbi and history professor Marc B. Shapiro may have a different view on these matters. He blogs April 22, 2010:

This is a blog about seforim, but with Dan’s permission, in a future post I am going to write about the various blogs and news sites, both haredi and Modern Orthodox, that focus on Jewish matters (halakhah, hashkafah, etc.). In the last six months I have visited them a good deal, left a number of comments (some quite provocative and opposed to my own outlook [e.g., dealing with sexual abuse, Zionism, Daas Torah, Torah mi-Sinai, etc.], and always under a pseudonym) and gathered the reactions. I also corresponded with people I met on the sites and with various anonymous baalei ha-blogs. I tried to be a bit of a reporter, gathering information, and just like a reporter sometimes has to hide his identify, I felt that in this circumstance it was permissible, especially as almost everyone I was dealing with was also anonymous. We all know that the ability to be anonymous is basic to the internet (and there has been a good deal of discussion recently about whether this is a good idea). I also felt that if I got involved in a debate on a haredi or Modern Orthodox site, my name would be recognizable to some of the people and they might respond differently than if I was some anonymous person.

Most of the information is publicly available (as are my comments), but I won’t cite any names, as I am not interested in individuals but in some of the thought processes that I observed. As always, I will tie this in with seforim, especially the phenomenon of anonymous and pseudonymous (as opposed to pseudepigraphal) seforim and articles, and also discuss the modern anonymous halakhic questions that R. Yuval Sherlow has written about. (He has also published a couple of volumes of his answers to these questions.) How is Judaism perceived and portrayed when people can live in two worlds, the public one and the private anonymous world of the internet? What does it mean when most people who comment about controversial topics choose to do so under a pseudonym? I think that what I found also has implications to an issue I have been concerned with for a long time, namely, the value of private letters and conversations vs. published word in seeking to evaluate the personality of an individual. This directly relates to David Holzer’s book on the Rav and was also a topic that became a dispute between the late Prof. Twersky and myself when writing my dissertation on R. Weinberg–more on that to come.

I mention all this because I have a request: If anyone is aware of a similar study with regard to Christian or political blogs and websites, please let me know. As a friend commented to me when I told him about my project, “we all know that there are registered Democrats on the Upper West Side who secretly vote Republican, but in order not to scandalize their friends, will only post their true opinions anonymously.” Yet has anyone written about this? There are serious methodological issues that must be dealt with in any such inquiry.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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