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.


  1. Thank you for giving my clarification some more prominence than the 56th comment on the previous post.

    The flaw in this otherwise fascinating analogy, is that kids in your classroom are your sacred responsibility. I can think of none greater save parenthood.

    If you want to say you're not responsible for other blogs - fine. They're not in your classroom. They're not even in your school or your district.

    If you choose to "put them in yor classroom" and accept responsibility for what other blogs say, you can't say you aren't responsible for them, and the contours of your association are held up to judgement.

  2. Sigh.

    The flaw in this otherwise fascinating analogy, is that kids in your classroom are your sacred responsibility. I can think of none greater save parenthood.

    I'm not sure what you mean here.

    If you choose to "put them in yor classroom"

    Who "chooses" this? By definition, we're all "in the same classroom" by virtue of how the internet works.

    and accept responsibility for what other blogs say

    !? I'm not sure how being in the blogosphere is the equivalent of accepting what they say. I accept NO responsibility for what others say, and nothing I do implies that I accept such responsibility.

  3. The idea is not about who is in what classroom.

    It's recognizing when people who do not stand for horrible organizations (as you mentioned in the comments of the other post as examples of blogs a Jewish person'd naturally stay away from) but who are the blogosphere's equivalent of "the kid in the back of the classroom" occasionally say something worth linking to.

    The point is that if people say something seriously, they'll be taken seriously. If they clown around being snarky, the serious people will ignore them. But when they do say serious things, you shouldn't have to ignore them just because other times they are snarky. Taking them seriously when they behave seriously doesn't suggest that you agree with everything they say. It means you're noting when they say something you feel is worth noting. I don't think most people would think differently.

  4. If they are in the back of the classroom you are in, then there is an association between you and he/her. Whether teacher/student, fellow students, whatever. There is an implication of association.

    Would you consider a teacher who does not acknowledge his student's good behavior derelict? (I would). Do you consider a blogger who doesn't acknowledge the good behavior of the nasty blogs derelict? (Of course not. What does some dude/gal writing on the internet have to do with you anymore than someone talking on the phone across the hall is?).

    If you choose to try to correct him, which may be noble, that implies an acceptance of responsibilty for how you draw the parameters of your association.

    Think of a drug dealer in Brooklyn, which is a better analogy. Only there is no law enforcement in that area.

    The vast majority of people on the planet have nothing to do with him, which is what the internet is. It is a world wide web - you have nothing to do with him.

    The people in Brooklyn (if you want to consider the blogosphere your neighborhood, though I would dispute that this need be the case) - most people stay away from him, which is fine and advisable. Professionals may try to help him. If you volunteer to try to rehabilitate him by applauding his days he gives out candy to children, you will be judged for the totality of how you go about your interaction with him. If you suggest that people accept what he gives out (which is what a blogroll implies) as part of his rehab - you're implicitly taking responsibility for what he might do on his bad days, unless you make it clear that the guy is a drug dealer.


  5. So, you and a friend are on a cruise ship, along with 2000 other passengers. The cruise line assigns you a table for dinner: breakfast and lunch are your choices as to where to sit.

    You are at the dinner table and two others at the table, strangers who have also been seated at your table, are loud, raucus, drunk, mouthing off--take your pick. What do you do? You could avoid making any comments to them, rush through your dinner, leave and ask to be seated elsewhere. You could politely ask that they stop what they are doing--you may or may not be successful. You could stand up, go around the table and loom over them, warning them that if they don't stop right now you are going to make them sorry they ever took this cruise (works best if you are 6'6" and/or carrying a big club). You may or may not be successful.

    Now what if one night these people are not loud or raucus or drunk and tell a story that everyone else at the table enjoys? Do you ignore the story, based on prior behavior of the teller, or do you applaud and offer positive reinforcement for this kind of group behavior? Some people will offer the positive reinforcement, some will not. Why? Because this is only a short cruise and they have no expectation that they will ever be judged on their interactions with these people, since they are short term and were the luck of the draw of a random seating plan. Those who do applaud the proper behavior aren't doing so to establish a relationship with the badly behaving person: perhaps they just want a peaceful dinner or a few peaceful days until the ship docks and everyone goes their separate ways.

    Bloggers aren't in one big classroom together, by definition of the Internet. A classroom, under normal circumstances is a place you have to be, by law or community custom. Which classroom you are going to be in and for how long is rarely, if ever, the choice of the "student." Students are stuck with each other until school is finished.

    Bloggers are far more like the people on that cruise. They have choices of where they want to go, on what kind of ship, for what duration of trip and in what class of service. They can take a cruise today or a train trip tomorrow, or go by foot, or bicycle, or car, or camel. They can choose their destination and what they are going to do when they get there. They can choose whom to interact with, where, when and how. They can choose to attempt to reason with an unruly fellow traveler, met by chance,but this does not constitute a relationship.

    Most people will NOT judge someone on the basis that they once took a cruise and someone else that they know and think terrible also took a cruise. Most people will be logical enough not to assign to passengers taking public transportation at the same time any kind of shared ideology. Most people will be logical enough not to assume commonality just because two people had a conversation at a dinner table.

    To assign to bloggers any commonality other than the plain, simple fact that they blog is to willfully indulge in most of the known logical fallacies.

  6. I'm not at all speaking of this sort of interaction. I blogged for a while and had all kinds of conversations with other bloggers. If I didn't like it - if it was my blog I muted him, if it wasn't I walked away. If I liked it, I stuck around.

    I'm talking about things analogous to putting the raucous guys on your list of recommended table partners; giving him a permanent seat at your table; or raving about his best discussion to people who may consider sitting at his table, without noting that usually you would be ill-advised to sit with him.

  7. Interesting. I've actually been mulling over a post in my head related to this. There is a huge emphasis in Orthodox Judaism and other fundamentalist religions (in practice) on clearly expressing disapproval and even going out of your way to not give the false impression of approval.

    For example, with the Iranian election and the right-wing criticism of Obama's supposed lack of verbal response, the right seems much more worried that the U.S. is giving the appearance of approval than that the U.S. is acting in its (or Israel's or whowever's) best interest.

    When discussing how to deal with intermarried relatives, Orthodox people invariably worry more about giving the appearance of approval than about hurting a loved one's feelings or embarrassing a human being in front of others.

    It's like Orthodox Judaism (and other fundamentalisms) are so dependent on collective shunning and judgment that its importance is placed above a number of factors I would think are more important.

  8. I think Rabbi Beckerman is talking more about linking to a blog like mine. He'd probably prefer I not even be allowed to comment here.

    Is that correct?

  9. JA - I *knew* you'd bring Iran into this. I don't want to get offtrack; suffice it to say that the issue in Iran is very different by virtue of who you're trying to change the perception of - not outsiders, but people who are there and struggling. One could argue that it's important to give them enough verbal support to understand that if they continue on this path they will have protection of sorts. (I don't necessarily agree, but I do think it's a valid argument.)

  10. I would assume that linking to a blog like yours would be problematic in his eyes, yes, but you'd have to ask him.

  11. Erachet, ProfK - Exactly, and very well put.

    R' Beckerman - An association such as "same classroom" does not mean they are associated in terms of views, approval, or anything else. If I work in the same office as a communist, do I somehow give credence or implicit approval to his views? I think not.

    I think your drug dealer analogy is apt, in that no, most people would not judge a counselor or assume views to him even if his case continues to sell drugs - and this, despite specific intervention and a concentrated attempt to work with the person. Kal v'chomer, a rare link to a good post by a negative blogger would not and should not result in a negative association.

    I'm not at all speaking of this sort of interaction. I blogged for a while and had all kinds of conversations with other bloggers. If I didn't like it - if it was my blog I muted him, if it wasn't I walked away. If I liked it, I stuck around.

    Exactly. While you had conversations, nobody assumed you agreed; nobody linked you as a proponent of those blogs.

    I'm talking about things analogous to putting the raucous guys on your list of recommended table partners; giving him a permanent seat at your table; or raving about his best discussion to people who may consider sitting at his table, without noting that usually you would be ill-advised to sit with him.

    I don't think anyone is putting anyone on a list of "recommended table partners", giving a "permanent seat", or "raving" about his best discussion.

  12. Do you consider a blogger who doesn't acknowledge the good behavior of the nasty blogs derelict? (Of course not. What does some dude/gal writing on the internet have to do with you anymore than someone talking on the phone across the hall is?)

    It's not about correcting. You're right, blogger's are not responsible for one another in that sort of way. What they are doing, though, is engaging in conversation. The conversation is much more important than what sort of background the actual bloggers have or if some bloggers are sometimes really snarky. Linking to a post is not about the blogger at all. It's not saying, "Good for you for saying something serious!" It's just about the post. It's saying, "I thought this post was really good and work linking to." Why shouldn't you link to a post you really like?

    If someone links to your post, the person is not saying, "I really like you." The person is saying, "I really like that post of yours."

  13. I don't think anyone is putting anyone on a list of "recommended table partners", giving a "permanent seat", or "raving" about his best discussion

    That's how blogrolls, contributors, and nominating for best post of the year come across. I know you don't agree.

    JA - linking, I have a prob with, talking to I don't at all, as long as you're not being Meisis in any way.

    Y'all have yourselves a great Shabbos.

  14. Look, I understand what you're saying.

    There's a difference between saying "this is a great post" and "this is a great blog, go check it out."

    I hear you. You're saying that by having someone on your blogroll, you're essentially saying, "this is a great blog, go check it out."

    And perhaps that's true. Perhaps people should be more careful to only have blogs on their blogrolls that they think other bloggers will actually want to read.

    I haven't been around the blogs forever. Certainly not as long as you have. And I probably haven't seen nearly as many blogs as you have. But I have seen my share of snarky, disgusting, rubbish blogs. Or blogs filled with silliness. And I've never really seen any respectable blogger have those blogs on his blogroll. I've certainly never seen anyone have a blogger like that as a contributor.

    Don't forget also, there's a difference between disagreeing, even strongly, with someone and finding that person to be stupid, obnoxious, and overly snarky for no intelligent reason.

    So your point is taken - at least, by me. But from what I've seen, like I said, I haven't really seen any respectable blogger promoting the blog (by blogrolls, having that person as a contributor, etc.) of someone who is an obnoxious, snarky pest and nothing more.

    Linking to individual posts is something entirely different. It's saying, "this particular post is great." Not, "go check out this person's entire blog!"

    That's the way I understand this whole discussion and that's the way I approach blogging.

    I first started my blog during (or right before) the last time they had JIB awards so I don't know too much about them, but from what I remember, you could nominate blogs and you could nominate individual posts. I doubt a person with sense and sechel would nominate a blog if it was snarky and rude and obnoxious and unintelligent. Or if it was filled with stupidity and silliness. But that doesn't mean a person wouldn't nominate the POST of a blog like that if that particular post happened to be intelligent and really good.

    To me, promoting posts and promoting blogs are two different things. I would not (and neither would anyone in this discussion nor any other blogger I know) promote the blog of an idiot. But I might link to a post I thought was spectacular, even if I didn't think the rest of the blog was particularly intelligent.

  15. See, I think that both Orthodox blogs and kefirahdik blogs are strengthened by the connectivity -- including blogrolls. There's literally almost nowhere else where the two groups of people can talk openly and honestly and so there are a lot of misunderstandings and false assumptions in the real world -- by Orthodox people about OTDers, but also by Orthodox people about each other.

    Take XGH, probably the most influential Kefirahdik&Orthoprax blogger out there. Sure some have no doubt gone OTD because of him, but many others have found that other "Orthodox" (i.e. Orthoprax) people believe the things that they believe and it doesn't mean that it has to be the end of the world as you know it, etc.

  16. I was too lazy to look for it until now, but I recalled debating about four years ago whether blogrolling was inherently a mark of implicit approval or not. After a bit, I determined that it was not. Even so, I detailed a bit of my dilemma in this post at the time: Blogs. What's especially interesting is that even there, it was a given that linking to a post was not an endorsement by any means.

    Since that time, I've never once been dissuaded from this view; it's partially why blogrolls seem to have faded in importance (that and the prevalence of RSS use - to keep track of blogs you really read, you merely use Google Reader or the like).

  17. JA - The skeptics et al were more useful when there was serious debate and discussion. (Albeit even then it was tempered with plenty of sarcasm all around.) At this point, it rarely adds anything besides a good laugh here and there.

    This is true not only from a frum POV but even from a skeptic POV.

  18. The way I see it concerning blogrolls, it depends. Some people have these HUMONGOUS lists of blogs - as in, they basically link every blog they know of, or nearly. I think a blogroll like that doesn't mean the person doing the linking necessarily endorses every blog on there.

    But then some people have only a select list of their friends or of blogs they really like - something like that. I think a blog appearing on that list would be a mark of approval by the blogger doing the linking.

  19. Eh - even then, much of the time it's because they were linked to, or just they find it interesting to read, even if they don't approve of the ideas. It's not an endorsement.

  20. Yeah, but they wouldn't find it interesting to read unless it didn't sound like it was written by a jerk, right? That's why I made the distinction in a comment before about the difference between strongly disagreeing with something (but still finding it interesting, and hence linking to it) and finding something obnoxious and snarky for no intelligent reason.

  21. I'm with Erachet on the distinction between limited and gargantuan blogrolls, which is why I wrote "limited blogrolls" repeatedly on the other thread.

    Linking to a particular post I'll meet you halfway. I think, in general, it is a judgement call depending on how abhorrent the general content is. You agree that linking to a post by neo-Nazis/ Jews for J etc., no matter how worthwhile the particular post might be, is unconscionable, because the likes of those people are outside of any acceptable public discourse. If they came over to my table on the cruise (I like that analogy ProfK), I would most definitely either throw them off or change my own seat. They have no place at my table for even a moment.

    If it is the type of blog that a person feels is within acceptable bounds of public discourse, then there may be a reason for a link to a particular post.

    The thing is that when you have a particular goal in mind when joining the cruise and sitting with people on the table (other than leisure which is surely why many, probably most, people blog), and there are people who repeatedly undercut what you're trying to accomplish, then for the purposes of this cruise you just can't have them join the table.

    If a blogger has, as his primary mission, social commentary for the improvement of Orthodox Judaism, then people who are destructive can't be at the table, because the side you want listening to you sees them at your table sometimes and doesn't want to sit with you.

    I agree that this is more about perception than reality, but when a perception is knowingly being created and there are more overarching, critical goals in mind than rehabilitating the destructive table guest, I think it is important to actively and transparently dispel the perceptions before expecting that the side you really want at your table, who is quite reluctant to show up at it to begin with, actually shows up and engages.

  22. i don't know... if you asked my parents, or your parents, those who grew up more then 50 years ago in America, had mechalelei shabbos in their classrooms, and they still turned out pretty well.

    for the most part those who were from religious families stayed religious, and those that weren't didn't.

    and they all survived