Monday, May 7, 2012

Internet Filters: Why We Need Them, Even if They Don't Work

Gil Student just published an important piece on the various forms of internet filters available. I highly recommend it, and especially the advice for parents with children on the web that he shares at the end of the post (which I haven't fully implemented yet - but will). In Israel, the server-side filters are far more developed than they are in the United States (we use Internet Rimon, but there are other options available as well), and are even cheaper than many of the regular internet providers.
And yet, despite all of our efforts, we know that internet filters don't really work. For every effort that we make to make the internet safer in our homes, we know, deep down, that our children are often way, way ahead of us.
I was recently invited to speak to a group of seventh-grade boys, and I spoke with them about the challenge of making good choices. When I casually alluded to the choices that they make when they're sitting at the computer and noted that we have Internet Rimon in our home, their teacher chimed in.
"You know," he told me, "there's a program that you can download to get around Rimon's limits - and all of the kids know about the program?" I didn't know. "Even worse," he said, "is that you can download the program from the web, and Rimon doesn't block the site from which you can download the program!"
I can't say that I was that surprised. After all, children throughout time have exerted immeasurable efforts to circumvent the limits that their parents place upon them.
And yet, despite the fact that these filters are limited; despite the fact that they have holes - they're critical tools that every religious person needs to install in his or her home. Moreover, they're not just for our children. These filters are important - perhaps even most important - for ourselves.

Let us not mince words. The Internet doesn't only present a danger to our children. We fall prey to those very same dangers ourselves. We seek not only to protect the members of our families from their lapses; rather we must also protect them from our failures as well.
How then are we supposed to protect ourselves from ourselves? After all, if I'm the one that set up the web filter; if I have the passwords, and can circumvent the censor, of what value is the filter?
I believe that they offer great value, especially when we examine an important aspect of how the yetzer hara functions, and one of the principal ways that he (the side of us which draws us toward sinful activity) operates.
Essentially, our yetzer hara doesn't want us to think. He wants us to do anything but think. He wants us to yearn, to desire, to act impulsively. He realizes, perhaps better than we do, that when we pause to examine our actions, chances are that we'll make the right choice. When we stop to weigh whether we really want to sin, and consider not just the benefits, but also the consequences, there's a strong possibility that we won't sin after all. It's just not worth it.
Our yetzer hara knows all of this. So his best bet is to avoid the thought process entirely. So he tells us to, "Just Do It." Now. Don't Delay. Don't think. And that, to our great dismay, is precisely what we do.
The best illustration of this tactic that I've ever read can be found in the first letter of C.S. Lewis' "The Screwtape Letters." (While Lewis himself was speaking about Christianity - in fact, the entire book is a series of "letters" from a head tempter to one of his junior associates - the work is perhaps the most effective mussar work I have encountered, and I try to reread it before Rosh Hashanah each year.) In the first letter he writes,

My Dear Wormwood,
I note what you say about guiding your patient's reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naif? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy's clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons, we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to having a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn't think of doctrines as primarily "true" or "false," but as "academic" or "practical," "outworn" or "contemporary," "conventional" or "ruthless." Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. Don't waste time trying to make him think that materialism is true! Make him think it is strong or stark or courageous—that it is the philosophy of the future. That's the sort of thing he cares about.
The trouble about argument is that it moves the whole struggle onto the Enemy's own ground. He can argue too; whereas in really practical propaganda of the kind I am suggesting He has been shown for centuries to be greatly the inferior of Our Father Below. By the very act of arguing you awake the patient's reason; and once it is awake, who can foresee the result! Even if a particular train of thought can be twisted so as to end in our favour, you will find that you have been strengthening in your patient the fatal habit of attending to universal issues and withdrawing his attention from the stream of immediate sense experiences. Your business is to fix his attention on the stream. Teach him to call it "real life" and don't let him ask what he means by "real."
Remember, he is not, like you, a pure spirit. Never having been a human (oh, that abominable advantage of the Enemy's!) you don't realise how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary. I once had a patient, a sound atheist, who used to read in the British Museum. One day, as he sat reading, I saw a train of thought in his mind beginning to go the wrong way. The Enemy, of course, was at his elbow in a moment. Before I knew where I was I saw my twenty years' work beginning to totter. If I had lost my head and begun to attempt a defence by argument, I should have been undone. But I was not such a fool. I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control, and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the counter-suggestion (you know how one can never quite overhear what He says to them?) that this was more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line, for when I said, "Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning," the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added "Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind," he was already halfway to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a newsboy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man's head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of "real life" (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all "that sort of thing" just couldn't be true. He knew he'd had a narrow escape, and in later years was fond of talking about "that inarticulate sense for actuality which is our ultimate safe guard against the aberrations of mere logic." He is now safe in Our Father's house.
You begin to see the point? Thanks to processes which we set at work in them centuries ago, they find it all but impossible to believe in the unfamiliar while the familiar is before their eyes. Keep pressing home on him the ordinariness of things. Above all, do not attempt to use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defence against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can't touch and see. There have been sad cases among the modern physicists. If he must dabble in science, keep him on economics and sociology; don't let him get away from that invaluable "real life." But the best of all is to let him read no science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is "the results of modern investigation." Do remember you are there to fuddle him. From the way some of you young fiends talk, anyone would suppose it was our job to teach!
Your affectionate uncle,
If what Lewis wrote held true in England of the 1930s, how much more true are his sentiments today! We live in an era of constant distraction, when we can't get anything done without being interrupted by texts, instant messages, emails, status updates, tweets, calls - the list is unending. It seems that if we're not doing three things at once, we're not really doing anything. And, with smartphones, we're distracted even while interacting with other people. Even when I'm giving a shiur, people constantly check their phones, text, send email. (As a teacher, that's really distracting.) It seems that what happens on Facebook today is, in fact, more real than the actual lives that we're leading. That's just how the yetzer hara likes things. Don't think. Click. What's next. Click on that link.
The greatest danger of the Internet isn't simply the content. Rather, it's the fact that the most dangerous, insidious, pernicious content is instantly accessible. Back when I was a kid (yes, I know, ages ago, when they still distributed movies on tapes), if you wanted to watch something remotely inappropriate, you had to have gumption to actually rent it from the video store. There was some sense of shame. But not today. With the web, you're there in literally an instant, without thinking. And, before you know it, you've enmeshed yourself in a website from which it's difficult to disengage.
This, to my mind, is one of the primary motivations for internet filters.
No, they're not perfect, and clever people can get around them, perhaps easily. But filters make us pause, if only for a moment. And a critical moment it is. If I've got to get around the filter that I myself put into place, I must take at least one additional step in order to access a site that the software thinks I should not.
That instant is crucial, because it's the moment that I must stop and ask myself, "Do I really want to access that site?"
More often than not, the answer is no. So I click elsewhere.