Thursday, September 17, 2009

What Sort of Respectable Person Would Write a Blog?

Writing a blog can be a tricky task. Over and over again I find myself faced with the fact that, when writing, one is judged not by what you intended to mean but by what someone else understood you to mean. This could be a manageable task where it not for the fact that people can be remarkably lazy readers and are often looking for something to complain about. There is no defense against someone who wishes to see you in a negative light. As someone with Asperger syndrome this is made all the more difficult as neurotypicals can be counted on to read a very different text from what I write, ignoring the very literal meaning of what I say in favor of some abstract relational construct beyond my grasp. (Of course there are times that even those who are on the spectrum also failed to understand me.)

My previous post managed to raise a few eyebrows. (I have since erased this post.) The question was raised to me whether it was appropriate for me to write about a student in school and whether as a teacher and as a representative of a school I should have shown more discretion. In regards to the first issue I would point out that I was praising the student. More importantly, this was a student who speaks publically about Asperger syndrome and his written about it. I wrote my post for the sole reason of putting up a link to this person’s work and encouraging people to read it. I never would have written such a piece for a private student and if I had made any mention of a student I would have been quick to change the name and details of the event. Anyone who writes for the public domain does so with the implicit assumption that people will read it and react to it. I would even go so far as to say that writing for the public domain is to send out a public invitation to everyone on the planet (without engaging in the spamming tactics of Authentic Judaism) to come read and comment. This includes praise, but also condemnations. For example, as the writer of this blog I have de facto handed all of you permission not only to read my work but also to comment on it in the comments section, to your friends and even on your own blogs. I have also given up any right to complain if I am attacked for what I write; this includes even personal attacks and insults. (You still cannot directly malign my character. For that you have to wait until I become a full public figure and do something like publish my novel, run for public office or go on a reality show.) As to what I said about this student and his struggles, this is the reality of teenage Asperger syndrome. There can be no meaningful discussion about Asperger syndrome that does not confront this. It would be like trying to hold a meaningful discourse about being black in America without talking about racism; this would make many white people sleep more easily, but it would not be a discourse at all.

I would like to turn to the second argument, which I think is the more telling one. Every time I write something, particularly if it involves a specific individual, I take a risk that something will backfire. And as it has been demonstrated repeatedly, even very innocent remarks can backfire. As a representative of a school, that school now shares in this risk. Despite the fact that whatever I write is my personal view and not that of the school’s, what I write reflects on them. Similarly, my brother, who has just started medical school, told me that at orientation a member of the administration gave a speech to the students about the need to be careful about their actions and consider how they might reflect on the school. In particular this administrator brought up the issue of blogs, which he viewed as childish tantrums. In an admittedly very perceptive piece, Dodi Lee Hecht of the Corner of Hollywood and Sinai makes the argument that blogs are an exercise in personal narcissism as opposed to means of reaching out and sharing ideas with the public.

I certainly do not deny the validity of any of these arguments. I would though like to raise an issue for those wishing to piously sit by the sidelines, not writing for the public domain, and lecture those who do venture out in the public domain as to how they should be careful and even suggest that it might be better if they did not take the risk of damaging their reputations or the reputations of the institutions they represent. What would it mean if those who were “respectable” and represented “respectable” institutions did not venture into the public domain and did not blog? Take for example the students at my brother’s medical school. You have hundreds of young men and women with extensive knowledge about science and an understanding as to the implications of public policy on science particularly in such issues as abortion and stem cell research. What if they followed the advice of the administrator; what if every medical student followed this advice? What if every student studying science at a graduate level did this as well? Perfectly reasonable, why should anyone take a chance of besmirching their reputations and the reputations of their schools? What this means, though, is that our public conversation about science is now going to be held without them. The only voices that are going to be heard talking about science are precisely those who are not attached to any respectable scientific institution. In essence you are handing the dialogue over to precisely to anti-science radicals, to kooks. Now this administrator, I am sure meant well, but as with many high sounding principles there is a consequence. What he was really saying was not just that he did not want students writing blogs but that the blogosphere should be dominated by anti-science radicals. For one thing he gives up the right to complain about the tone of discourse on the internet. It might be that the price is worth it, but intellectual honesty requires that this price be acknowledge and that he take moral responsibility for what is being paid.

I like to think of myself as operating a quality blog. I do my best to avoid personal attacks. (This whole situation came about because I publically praised someone.) Readers of this blog will find that I do my best to articulate what I believe and why, not to catalogue insults. Admittedly I pay a price for this. Without a doubt I would have more readers if I were more offensive. Inevitably I will say something controversial. But if I am to be criticized for this I also request that I be given credit for what I do right. Readers will find on this blog a clearly articulated vision of what history is. They will also find a defense of Judaism. (The fact that these both exist in close proximity to each other is itself an important religious apologetic point.) To say that people like me with academic backgrounds and connections to Modern Orthodox institutions should not blog is to argue that the blogosphere should be the sounding board of those with no academic training and no connections to Modern Orthodoxy institutions.

I would even go so far as to argue that there is a particular necessity to have responses by people who are in the peculiar situation of balancing being connected to institutions, but not representing these institutions and even on occasion to go against these same institutions. The fact that I am connected to a Modern Orthodox institution gives me credibility as a defender of Modern Orthodoxy; I am no longer simply an eccentric on the side. On the other hand if I actually represented a Modern Orthodox institution I would have to act as an apologist for the institution. Anyone who never goes against an institution would simply be a de facto representative and apologist. This is one of the reasons why I would never wish to serve as a rabbi. It would mean that I would have to be the defender of Judaism at all times and at all costs. If you doubt how insidious this is I would ask that you consider the examples of Avi Shafran, Jonathan Rosenblum and Chaim Zweibel, all very intelligent men, who sold themselves out as Haredi apologists and have lost all credibility with precisely the sorts of people they were supposed to be reaching out to. Institutions will need representatives, whose job it is to make the case for the system, but these people are going to need others to give them the occasional reality check. May I suggest being in touch with a few intelligent bloggers?

1 comment:

Miss S. said...

This highlights another issue which I have a huge problem with, but you did not touch on directly; people embracing labels and stereotypes. I guess in this day and age, there is not appreciation for the "Renaissance Man" who public presents multiple facets of themselves. No, most people would rather embrace a one, maybe two dimensional persona and have that be "who they are". They actually work to downplay any part of their own personal histories that conflict with their current image.

This past summer I had one of the alumna members of my sorority contact me (I do the website) and request that I remove her name and pictures completely from the website. So is also a 1st year medical student and was concerned about her image. I did not take this lightly. What I did was search her first and last name, see what pages the search engines brought up on her, and removed her last name. As far as pictures, they stayed; we don't allow "incriminating" pictures (drinking, smoking, lewd poses) on the website to begin with. She had no good reason to be embarrassed of her affiliation and if she was, then I look at it like, "Hey, I did not tell you to eat the whole tub of ice cream, don't cry to me that your tummy hurts now." This was purely an exercise in "Oh, I don't want people to think I was like ___". So what if you become a doctor one day and it comes out that you were in a sorority? Does anyone truly believe that highly trained, qualified professionals never had any other interests or engaged in any non-profession related activities ever in their lives? And if you are the type of person who works to hide these various facets of your personality than that's pretty darn deceitful if you ask me. And I don't see why the sorority should be an enabler of that.

I think that by nature, bloggers (well the ones that are multi-faceted in their writing...not the ones who use blogs as a tool to promote their one-dimensional "image") tend to be more comfortable with themselves and social non-conformists. The naysayers are reading about topic that they do not have the courage to initiate themselves; because of the social ramifications of doing so.

L'shana Tova!