Feedback vs. Gossip: The SCA and Courtesy

SCA culture is largely built around a model of Courtesy. As the model of courtesy has evolved organically, it has, to my eye (and not only mine), tended to emphasize an avoidance of confrontation and public embarrassment a lot of the time. When someone takes note of what someone else is doing, there is a standard but unwritten rule we follow: If they did something good, praise them to their face if you can. If they did something not so good…find their mentor, and pass the feedback along to them, generally with the understanding that it will be shared anonymously.

There is, in my experience (and not only mine), a rather serious side effect to this informal model of feedback. If a gentle doesn’t have a mentor, or you don’t know who the mentor is, or if you don’t have access to or a relationship with said mentor…what do you do with your feedback? Sometimes, the feedback starts circulating in whispers behind the gentle’s back. And by the time the gentle finally becomes aware of these circulating whispers, it can be incredibly upsetting and painful.

Full disclosure: I have ADHD which was only diagnosed in my mid-twenties. I had, and still have, difficulties picking up on subtle social cues, impulse control, balancing speaking with listening, and managing my emotions if I get flooded. As you might guess, I tend to find the feedback loop I described above not very helpful, and have had my share of emotional wounds from it. Understand that, thanks to mentors and friends, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from my mistakes, and I’m fairly comfortable with my standing today. But recently, I’ve encountered some other folks who have been getting caught up in this feedback loop, and in response, I shared some of my reflections online, and they’ve been well received. So (after consulting with my Laurel) I am sharing them here.

(Disclaimer: I am not talking about how we should discuss someone’s abusive or harrassing conduct toward others, or the use of hate speech. I have no interest in protecting bullies, and I am fully aware of the issues of power and privilege that are causing so much turmoil in the SCA and our larger society. If someone is targeting other people or making them feel unsafe, we must do whatever we can to correct the situation. I will reference this real and valid concern as part of my thoughts later on.)

Part 1: The Feathers in the Pillow (Lashon Hora)

Whenever I think about this issue of back-channel gossip, it brings to mind a Judaic tale that is unavoidably post-period (1700s) but nonetheless really pertinent. It comes from the Talmud Chasidic tradition. There are many versions, but it goes something like this:

In a small town in Eastern Europe, the rabbi calls over a man who is known for the delight he takes in telling stories about the faults of others behind their back. The rabbi reminds the man that this practice–lashon hora or “evil speech”–is considered a grievous sin, akin in its way to murder: character assassination.

“But, Rabbi”, the man says, “I am not slandering anyone. The things I say are true. How can it be wrong to speak the truth?”

“Is it your goal to help the people whose stories you tell behind their backs? Or do you just enjoy feeling better than them? Because when you commit lashon hora, I assure you, you are not elevating yourself in any way.”

“Very well, Rabbi,” the man says with exasperation. “You say it’s a sin…so how do I atone? How can I make it right?”

The rabbi grabs a feather pillow from his sofa and a letter-opener, and heads toward the door to the synagogue. “Come with me.” The two men step outside into the fresh air of midday.

“Cut the pillow open. Don’t ask questions, just do it.” The man obeys. “Now, shake the pillow vigorously.” The man does, and the feathers from the pillow fly all around them, swirling in the breeze. Within moments, a strong wind comes up, and the two men watch as feathers fly every which way, all over the town and beyond.

“Now,” says the rabbi, “I want you to put every single feather back into the pillow where it belongs. When you have done that, you will have atoned, and your acts of lashon hora may be forgiven.”

The man stares out, ashen faced. “But…rabbi! That will be impossible! I will never find all of the feathers, and the mess is everywhere!”

“Exactly,” says the rabbi. “That is the nature of the harm you have done with your stories. The hurt you are doing to other people’s reputations can never be fixed by you. If there was context you didn’t know and left out, if these people have perhaps grown and changed since, if they are working to atone for their mistakes, that is not what people will remember. You can never recover all the hurts you create when you speak ill of someone who is not there to hear or answer your words.”

I will note, per the disclaimer above, that in Jewish teaching, there are rules about when an act of lashon hora is appropriate or even necessary to prevent greater harm. The two characters in the story are both high-status men, at a time centuries ago when many bad acts were probably largely invisible to them both. So, again, discussing how to address abusive behavior is not what I’m talking about here.

The impulse to talk about someone else’s flaws behind their back–attitudes, egos, who someone may have had sex with–can be hard to resist. We are human, and some of the conversations start from the most well-meaning of places. Sometimes, people who are well-meaning are being fed stories, possibly by someone with less pure motives. And in a culture that was built around being “courteous”, the result can be a whispering campaign that is, in the end, neither courteous nor kind nor helpful to the individual who might benefit from feedback. I’ve talked to people recently who were on the verge of leaving the SCA over the hurts they have been dealt.

Part 2: What Can We Do?

I don’t know if there is any one thing we can do to address this cultural challenge. But we each have a choice of how to respond when someone comes to us bearing a tale about someone who isn’t present. I found myself imagining a conversational template that might guide us in such situations. Perhaps something like this:

“You’re telling me about <A>’s behavior. I want to get clarity on why you are telling me this. Did <A> make someone else feel unsafe, targeted, harassed, or unwelcome? Because if they did, that is against the SCA’s anti-bullying policy, and it’s just wrong, and someone should point that out to them. If you think they’ve already been warned, or you don’t feel safe telling them that, then let’s find someone to report this to. We need to make sure this comes from a first-hand witness to the behavior, though. Did you witness this, or can you refer me to the person who did?”

“Okay, so we’re not talking about abusive behavior here. What is your goal in telling me about what <A> did? Is it to help <A> correct their behavior in the future so that they will be more successful? Because if it’s for any other purpose than that, you’re engaging me in gossip, and I consider that discourteous, and I am going to ask you to stop right now. Not just with me, you shouldn’t be gossiping about <A> to anyone. If you are having trouble containing yourself, maybe you should look at what is so important to you emotionally that you want to gossip about people.”

“Okay, you say you are telling me this for <A>’s benefit. Does <A> have a mentor, and if so, am I that mentor? If not, are you looking for me to introduce you to <A>’s mentor? Because if you want to help <A>, the only thing that will be of service to them is to get feedback to them as directly as possible, and their mentor is the only person you should be sharing this with. If they don’t have a mentor, perhaps you would like to mentor them, or introduce them to someone suitable?”

“Okay, yes, I am <A>’s mentor. Do you believe this is a new story that I haven’t heard about? Were you a first-hand witness to the issue, or can you introduce me to someone who was? Because I take my job as mentor very seriously. If this is an old story that concerns you because you’re not sure whether <A> still behaves this way, I want to tell you that I had this conversation with <A> each time that behavior came up, and they have worked to correct it. I haven’t had anyone come to me with a new story about this in some while. So, if you want to discuss this directly with <A> because you need to see for yourself that they have grown and changed, I would be happy to set up a conversation with them. <A> would really prefer to discuss this with you directly so you can see for yourself, rather than continue to repeat and spread this old story. If you’re not comfortable talking to <A> about it, then this old story is going to stop here. <A> has done this work, and the last thing they need from me is to be told that people are still holding onto this judgment of them, but aren’t willing to discuss it with them directly. That sounds like your problem, not theirs, so I don’t see any point in even mentioning to them that you aren’t willing to let it go.”

“Oh, this is a new story, and you were a first-hand witness, or the target of the behavior? Okay. Please tell me about what <A> did so I can discuss it with them. Are you comfortable with my telling them who shared this with me? Because there’s a good chance <A> would like to clean this up with you, and understand why their behavior was so troubling to you, and they might learn more without an intermediary. But if you’re really not comfortable, I will do my best to explain this in as much detail as you can give me. If this is part of a pattern of behavior, I promise I will work on it with <A>, because obviously that should change. But if this is the first time I’ve heard something like this, I’m going to explain it to them, and if they don’t want any more support, I think I’ll let that be the end of it.”

“I hope we understand each other now.”

Is this the solution to this particular problem? Probably not. But it seems to me like a helpful and courteous place to start.

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