Wednesday, September 10, 2003

Responsible writing

Today some well-meaning friends forwarded to me a rant by someone trying to protect all our ears from the danger of free speech. (Don't you just love it when people assume you're a gullible idiot?) The rant, urging us to protest against an obscure film the ranter disagreed with, was replete with typos, miss-spelled words, logical gaps, and exclamation marks. In short, it screamed "nut case" and begged for the mercy of the Delete key.

But what if the writing had been good? I grit my teeth when I read something that, because of inside information, I know is wrong but which, to the average reader, appears well-reasoned and persuasive. And I wonder, when reading something on an unfamiliar topic, if what appears well-reasoned and persuasive to me is obvious bullshit to an expert.

Many years ago I met an extraordinatry storyteller, Rabbi Yitz Etshalom, at an arts retreat in Oregon. Several of us were captivated by his traditional and contemporary Jewish tales, and he was later invited to perform at Northwest Folklife and at Seattle storytelling events. At one performance at the Burke Museum Yitz revealed that for some years he'd stopped telling stories because he felt he'd misused his talents. As a counselor at a camp for Jewish teenagers, he'd been asked to intervene with a camper who wanted to cast off his Jewish identity and pursue secular studies; the boy's family wanted him to become a rabbi. Trying to reason with the camper only made the boy more determined to escape the community. But one night at a camp gathering Yitz deliberately told a heartrending tale about a boy who leaves his Jewish family and identity, only to find on his eventual return that his mother has died, heartbroken by his desertion. Some months later Yitz learned that the camper had been so affected by the story that he changed his academic direction to Jewish studies; the boy later became a rabbi.

But Yitz was deeply disturbed by the influence of his story on a young mind. Even if his motives in telling the story had been for the best, he was conscious that what he'd done was manipulative. Yitz returned to telling his fabulous stories, but said he never again crafted them for an audience of one, preferring instead to let the tales, and the listeners, meet by chance.

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