From the Desk of Avi Benlolo: 7 Ways We Can Win Against Anomie

November 23, 2018

Editorial

“The cyber warfare against the Jewish people – as exhibited by Airbnb this week – shows how humanity is putting itself in the hands of algorithms at the expense of interaction....”

The way to defeat antisemitism is through interpersonal collaborative engagement. This has been the FSWC model from the beginning, and was re-affirmed at our interfaith meeting this week.

In university, I was fascinated by the sociological analysis of Emile Durkheim around the possibility of a breakdown in society due to a breakdown of social norms and individualized alienation. In his time, he was mainly referring to rapid change in society due to industrialization and division of labour. His theory is complex and certainly cannot be given justice here, but Durkheim essentially worried that with a breakdown of standards and values caused by social alienation and lack of purpose, society could face a major disruption.

Disruptions of this nature, in my view, could lead to a rising tide of hatred and violence, including what we are now seeing once again across the world: rising antisemitism, nationalism and populism. A polarization of political spheres and attitudes and an inability to accept or accommodate another perspective. In Durkheim's time, it was the industrial revolution – a very new concept after centuries of feudal structure. In our time, and already at least 30 years underway, it's a technological revolution.

But lately, this technology, as many complain, has allowed for a disenfranchisement of ordinary people. In the normal sense of the word, instead of picking up the phone and speaking with someone, we are texting them. My generation still finds this abnormal, and we strive to engage with one another. But we worry for the next generation; while it still engages in face to face, social norms and interactions have been redefined once again and, depending on the individual, can lead to anomie.

The cyber warfare against the Jewish people – as exhibited by Airbnb this week – is impersonal. It shows how a computer system, guided by humans, can immediately impact hundreds of people across the world – people with real lives and families who are just trying to make a living. In the absence of direct engagement and civil discourse, humanity is putting itself in the hands of algorithms at the expense of interaction which could break down barriers and contextualize issues.

Alienation creates complacency, and reinforces negative attitudes and stereotypes. It can lead to violence and assault as we saw recently in a Toronto private school. It could lead to a lack of compassion or sensibility about the plight or history of another group – as we witnessed yet again in another school just weeks ago. Historically speaking, we know that when antisemitism, for instance, is on the rise, this is symptomatic of a greater dysfunction in society. The Jewish people, it is often said, are the "canary and in the coal mine" – we are the first to be impacted but rarely the last.

This is why at FSWC, we pride ourselves on building bridges and interacting with people and communities from across the religious, ethnic, racial and political (and everything, actually) spectrum.  

This week's interfaith meeting at the FSWC office was a highlight for me about why this perspective is so important. We were pleased to host leaders of various faiths and groups – Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jewish and many others. All of us came together to engage in a collaborative effort to first connect with one another and come up with some solutions to combating antisemitism. The passion for doing so face to face was apparent – many ideas came forward, including:

1) internally educating communities, 2) discussing the right of Israel to exist and condemning "apartheid weeks", 3) organizing programs and festivals among religious groups and celebrating together, 4) developing curriculum, spreading it and including it on apps, 5) speak out on social media to condemn hateful events (an attack on one is an attack on all), 6) pursue hate speech legislation and 7) further cross-cultural understanding.

There is only one way to defeat antisemitism (and all forms of hate) and promote civility among the communities here in Canada and abroad – we must defeat the anomie. Durkheim's theory created over 120 years ago still applies today – the threat to humanity comes from disengagement and from losing meaning in our lives. It may not always be possible to engage everyone, nor should we have tolerance for the intolerant, but we continuously have to try for the sake of our children.

Shabbat Shalom,

~Avi

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