Q. Some of my friends love to prowl Internet chat rooms using fabricated identities. Their “Internet identity” may change their age, gender, and background. Is there any ethical problem with this?
A. In a previous column we discussed the serious ethical problems involved in using an assumed identity to hoodwink customers. Those problems can occur in a personal context, and not only in business. For example, personal chats need to avoid creating fraudulent reliance. It would certainly be improper to participate in a dating forum, for example, if there is no genuine interest. (How would you feel if you knew that a charming, athletic 30-ish bachelor was really an 80-year-old granny in disguise?)
However, those ethical problems don't exist if an assumed identity is just a lark. When a person enters an Internet chat room, he or she doesn't owe any other participant knowledge about identifying details. So using an assumed name, for example, is certainly not unethical and in some cases may be advisable to protect privacy.
Nonetheless, there is something disturbing about assuming a completely alternative self. Many young people today have trouble feeling comfortable with their identities, and one obstacle is the many opportunities we have for fleeing from ourselves. How are youngsters supposed to adjust to who they are if they are constantly pretending to be somebody else?
The Torah includes many commandments teaching us to adhere to our unique identity. For instance, the Torah warns women not to wear men's clothing and vice versa (Deuteronomy 22:5), and it tells the Jewish people not to adopt the customs of the surrounding nations. (Leviticus 18:3.) Even if there is nothing inherently improper about other people's customs, they need to be avoided if they will cause us to forget who we are.
What is true of a nation is also true of the individual. These commandments suggest a universal educational message that a person should be secure in his or her identity and not be carried away by efforts to escape it.
Of course, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't experiment within our identities. Our identities are not simply given to us, rather we have to shape them. But we shape them within certain God-given restraints, including age and gender.
We can explain this idea with a simple analogy. Often young teenagers decide the time has come for them to adopt a distinctive signature. We find them spending hours experimenting with different options: Script or print; large or small; initials or full name; florid or stark, and so on -- the possibilities are endless. Yet one characteristic unites all of these efforts -- they are all the person's own name. This exercise is a normal and healthy part of growing up.
But it would be surprising and disturbing to find a young teenager experimenting with a variety of different names, especially names completely inappropriate to the youngster's background.
When the Torah tells us to love our fellow man, it uses a very precise expression: Love your neighbor as yourself. In order to love and respect others, we have to know how to love and respect ourselves! A person who becomes absorbed in an alternative identity on the Internet is not guilty of fooling anyone else. But this person may be guilty of fooling him or her self, and this is the worst victim of all.
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