Friday, July 10, 2009

The Back of the Room

With thanks to Erachet for the mashal

In many classrooms, you'll often find that somewhere in the back of the room there's a troublemaker. At every opening, this troublemaker will take a shot - with a snide comment, a rude response, or just in general acting out - and while sometimes one might argue that the target is a real one, the purpose behind this troublemaker's actions has little to do with constructive critique and much more to do with stirring the pot.

By and large, the best response other people in the classroom can have is to simply ignore. There's little use in getting into a debate, as that just plays into the attention-seeking he wants, and actively decrying his actions will do nothing but make others wonder just what's so bad about what he says in the first place that he needs to be shouted down.

How should you react, however, when this troublemaker decides to actually say something useful? When he makes a real critique without the usual snark, or if he starts talking about something positive or about something that's actually interesting and not negative? Do you write off any action or comment by him, no matter how positive, because of all the other times, to avoid giving him any credibility? Or is it more effective to do the reverse: Engage him in discussion about what he just said, encouraging future discussions of the sort, while demonstrating that when he approaches subjects with respect and has something genuine to add he is far more likely to be taken seriously and have his opinion valued?

There are those who will argue that the former approach is best because of perception. If someone were to walk by or walk into the classroom while such a discussion were ongoing, seeing the troublemaker's views being accepted or discussed seriously might lead the observer to believe that he is someone who should be listened to and respected. When they later discover that this person is a troublemaker, it will taint not only he himself but also those who were engaging him seriously - after all, how can you take such a person seriously? Why would you actively discuss anything with such a person?

However, this does not seem to be the correct approach. It seems much wiser to engage the troublemaker when the discussion has a positive tone and is being done with respect, when there is some positive that can actually come out of such a discussion. To write off someone in all situations is something reserved for special people, and to be concerned that someone walking by may get the wrong idea and perceive either the troublemaker as positive or lump the good people with him in general seems to be wrong. It is the responsibility of the person walking by or walking in to not assume so quickly or judge without understanding, not the person in the room to be concerned that someone walking by will misunderstand.

In case the nimshal (analogy) is not obvious, I think this sums up the discussion between myself and R' Doron Beckerman in the comments to Inflammatory Discussion below. {Please note that he issued a clarification later on in the comments; while I still disagree, it's certainly much more clear as to intent.} R' Beckerman is concerned that by occasionally noting positively or by not actively disassociating with the ideas of certain bloggers, good blogs create a perception that they are united with the negativity and ideals of those bloggers. While appreciating that being associated with such bloggers does a disservice, I don't think the responsibility for this lies with the people who post and act appropriately. It is unfair to lump all blogs together; the majority of blogs are respectful, engage in serious discussion of important issues, and their intentions are to help the Jewish community while expressing their frustrations with or decrying what they see as improper within the community. There is no need on their part to spend their time actively disassociating with the negativity for the sake of others to understand; those who wish to truly understand need only to take a closer look or ask.

Finally, those in a position to bridge the gap between the observers and the writers need only to point them in the right direction, to the right people, to do so - while erecting walls is far easier than building bridges, ultimately the bridges are far more useful.