Why do some people assume false identities?

One of the by products of the internet, is that it is easier to hide behind a screen and comment. This presents a challenge. I doubt there is anyone who hasn’t succumbed on rare or not so rare occasion to issuing an “Anonymous” comment, or a comment from “Yogi Bear”. That is one level. A lower level is when you imitate somebody else’s identity, and the someone else actually exists. This is clearly far more insidious, because not only is one hiding their true identity, or assuming a fictitious identity, they are pretending to be someone else. This is clearly universally unacceptable.

Academics, in particular, face perhaps more pressure to hide behind a screen. Gone are the days when an academic was free to express their opinion on any matter, especially those in which they have expertise, without fear of repercussions. Furthermore, the newly focussed environment of publish or perish has created its own unnatural Yetzer Hora for academics.

I vividly recall a fellow PhD student who had managed to publish about ten academic papers by the time he was ready to hand in his PhD. I had published 2 Journal papers and 2 Conference papers, and I thought I had been doing well. I recall looking at some drafts on his desk, and perusing these. What I saw was the “one” result, recast in different and deceptive ways, and sent to different forums, where neither forum would be aware of the other, let alone previous papers ostensibly in that area. I thought he was engaging in an academic fraud. My view was shared by other PhD students, but we didn’t say anything.

Bravely, when he went to submit his PhD, the checks and balances were applied, the University refused to allow him to submit his PhD, despite that he had ten publications to his name. His supervisor was oblivious and also at fault, no doubt.

Pressure builds on intelligent people. They have important things that they want to say, and they await reaction with a sharpened pen to defend themselves or their standpoint. They often find it more difficult to remain silent. The bubbling of the intellect is a force that sometimes forces its way through.

I am reminded of the story about R’ Chaim Brisker ז’ל, which was repeated in real life again by his Yoresh in genius and chesed, the Rav ז’ל. Both were profoundly attached to Emes in the purest sense. Their egos and academic genius were a clear second to Emes, truth. When they had both given a profound shiur that was roundly commended, they both had the integrity to front the same crowd, and declare

“What I said yesterday was wrong (faulty)”

This is an ethical value derived from an attachment to Torah. That’s not to say, of course, that others are unable to be similarly ethical without having learned Torah, but for the Soloveitchik family, abhorrence any  of falsehood was in their DNA. At the end of the day, one could argue, what would it have mattered. Unless someone proved that there were errors in the R’ Chaim or the Rav’s logical analysis  one might be tempted to “let it go” and take the attitude “It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t change anything”.

Academic life has changed enormously. While once we could pursue what was of interest to us, and do so with all the tenacity (and sometimes vitriol) we could muster because we believed in what we had written, today, elements of government ineptitude have imposed themselves on many academics. These budgetary pseudo-justifications are premised on dubious metrics and so-called “quality” outcomes, most of which are simply untrue.

Academics will now often not speak out, for fear of upsetting their line manager, or someone higher up.  They may accept papers that they should not have accepted for ulterior motives. They often adopt the attitude of “you do me a favour and give me a glowing reference, and I’ll do likewise”. This has happened because they are now under the same KPI-driven system which in essence is anathema to a free intellect that finds expression best when they are unencumbered. An obsession with metrics and management layers has introduced an unnecessary bureaucratic yoke.

Witness the growth of a metric system designed to measure one University against another, and one academic against another. Frankly, in most cases, I and most others find these metrics faulty, inconclusive and game-playing. There are academics I know who have written a seminal paper that appears as a standard reference in every text book, and are otherwise not considered “influential”. Yet, there are others who have published hundreds of papers, and if one tried to summarise in one paragraph what they had contributed to the field, it is too hard because it can’t be written down.

I have met and had dinner with Rabbi Professor Michael Broyde. He is a  quiet and unassuming gentlemen who portrays almost no ego. I found and find him to be committed to Torah-learning in a profound way. Yet, he was identified in a recent imbroglio and caught sock-puppeting over a number of years by using the alias of “Rabbi Hershel Goldstein”. The part of his sock-puppeting that disturbed me was the alleged praise by Hershel of Broyde’s essays or comments. This aspect reveals a man who either  has a low self-esteem or is full of himself. I suspect the former based on my observation.

That he has been suspended from the Beth Din of America is appropriate. I would like to think, though, that in time, he will return there, after Teshuva. If HKBH accepts Teshuva when it comes from the heart via action, then so should we.

I hope his University doesn’t come out too viciously in dealing with his actions. Yes, he did the wrong thing, and yes, he should be counselled.

I do not, however, want to see the disappearance of Rabbi Broyde from the landscape of Torah learning and academia over these issues.

He hasn’t stolen from or abused anyone. He made some very poor errors of judgement. This can be corrected. He isn’t the first or the last. Consider: John Locke, Voltaire, Lawrence Sterne, Benjamin Franklin and many more. Raphael Golb is a more recent example.