Out, Performing, In, Processing

I read Dave Pollard’s report of Meg Tilly’s dismaying experience at the Northern Voice blogging conference with tremendous interest and sympathy. Among the many important dimensions of the situation, two particular constellations of points stand out to me.
First, neither the presenter nor Dave Pollard had the vaguest idea that someone was actually being hurt. Dave mentions hearing Meg interject a protest, but he only just registered the sound; he didn’t (as he notes) hae time to follow through and identify what was happening. Thing One: Well-intentioned People cause others profound (“devastating”) pain without even noticing it. Nancy and Dave were not egregiously careless — they were going with the program, a program that commendably advocates getting away from mere cognitive-verbal engagement with information. I want to emphasize that this purpose resonates deeply with my hermeneutical interests, and I vigorously endorse Nancy’s interest in getting people out of passive attendance into active participation. It’s all good, as they say; except that this particular day, this particular well-intentioned exercise was not good at all for an articulate, thoughtful participant.
The point is that no matter how purely commendable your intentions, no matter how apparently innocent your program, no matter how brilliantly successful its effects in the previous ten situations you tried it out, a presenter (or a preacher or a teacher) always stands under the likelihood that something they say or do will injure somebody. There’s no way to immunize yourself from that possibiliity, and the reflex to blame the person who suffered pain only aggravates the offense. In this situation, Nancy showed laudable concern and humility and extended herself to apologize and make amends (well done, Nancy). Nonetheless, anyone who ventures to take up that sort of position of public leadership runs the risk of causing unanticipated (and entirely unforeseeable) injury. If you want to be sure that you don’t hurt anyone, sit back and stay quiet. If you care enough to speak up and lead, begin by considering the chance that you’ll hit someone at a very vulnerable point, and from the very start resolve not to shrug it off, not to blame her or him, but to take responsibility for the injury that you could have chosen to avoid (even though you had no reason to expect it).
On the second point, I’m going to be less complimentary to Nancy. The exercise she led (and countless others like it) looks to me to be extraordinarily extrovert-centric. I’m very skeptical about the ethics of dragooning people into participating in a public exercise, then displaying the results of their participation for the whole conference (and in this case, for the whole world) to see. I heartily sympathize with the value of getting an audience (or a class or a congregation) involved in what’s going on, and as I said before, I emphatically support the particular concern that impelled Nancy to assign the drawing exercise. At the same time, I’m introverted enough myself to wince in pain when I hear Meg’s story. As a presenter/preacher/teacher, I try to avoid anything that puts people in so exposed a situation; where circumstances warrant an exercise such as this one, I try to make the justification explicit (“This is practice for times that you’ll be doing this in public once you graduate”) and to emphasize the limited publicity of the setting (“We’re the only ones who will see it”). If something must be done out in the big, wild public, I emphasize caution, patience, and preparation. None of that precludes hurting somebody, but it helps build mutuality in expectations and the understanding of the exercise. Please, though, please please please, don’t assume that everyone is extroverted.
(P.S. I’d never read Meg Tilly’s blog before — didn’t even know she wrote one — but she’s a charming blogger, just the sort of online correspondent who gave blogging a good name. And I’m not saying that because I had a mini-crush on her after seeing her in The Big Chill. That was so long ago, and so mini.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *