Over the past decade, list serves have become a fact of life. Any community to which you belong, any school your children attend, any team on which they play – there’s a list serve for that.
For a long time, I thought it was critical that I follow every list serve. I thought that I might miss some really important information, or a crucial discussion about an issue that was facing my community.
There are really important reasons to pay attention to the list serves. I am grateful that my children’s schools have this mechanism by which to inform and remind parents both about big school events (back to school night, finals, when the sports forms are due) and immediate emergencies (power outages in the school, tornado evacuations, safety issues of all sorts.)
I also am grateful that our schools understand that there is still a digital divide, and that many of our families still don’t have regular access to computers and therefore list serves, and offer up all this information by robo-call as well, even if it does interrupt our dinner on a regular basis.
The school list serves are such an important link to everything that is happening in the schools, in fact, they are divided into two – information and discussion. But this past week, the school discussion list serve got a little out of hand.
A parent questioned the timeliness of the morning announcements, prepared for the students and delivered on the promethean boards each morning, and also sent out by email to the parents who have signed up for them. His child missed an activity, and he was concerned that there hadn’t been adequate warning about it.
You would have thought that a question of utter intractability and with the import of world peace had been posed to the parent body by the way the discussion ensued. Note after note after note, with the original poster coming back time and again to defend his point – the debate raged for days … and days. No one would back down, and even though each time someone tried to enter the fray with the intent to have the last, sane word, it fueled the fire which would rage again for another set of comments.
No one was particularly angry in this case – there were just disagreements about a practical matter and a widely diverging sense of parent involvement. In the end, I think it finally died down, but not before an enormous amount of psychic energy was expended. People were writing from their workplaces about how parents can’t possibly be expected to read announcements at the workplace. And so on.
I have to admit, I do get a little giggle sometimes from these great important issues of the day at the schools. Sometimes even a little schadenfreude. I especially feel that with our neighborhood list serve, which is populated primarily by parents of babies and young children. For me, there’s a bit of a “thank goodness I’m past that stage” when I skim headlines about babies’ sleeping habits, the need for Mobys (I don’t even know what those are) and seeking activities for an active toddler. When I have a reasonable and useful answer, I will write back (privately) to the poster, but generally speaking, I just take a quick look to see if there’s anything relevant to the neighborhood.
Then there’s my synagogue list serve. The granddaddy of all list serves, and I believe the very first list serve I ever joined. For many years, I followed it religiously (pun intended), deeply engaged in the life of our community and delighted by this vehicle for connecting with fellow congregants so easily and over so many things. In recent years, I have whittled down my access to a daily digest, and spend very little time reading it – most of the postings are not relevant to my needs, and the important information about program timing and services is delivered with a different weekly email.
But these past two weeks have been among the most divisive, ugly, sad and revealing in our poor list serve’s memory. We have an internal crisis of immense proportions that has hit our religious community, and despite the board’s attempt to channel the conversation to a (one-way) email address, the debate rages on through the list serve.
In this case, I am not giggling. I am deeply enmeshed in conversations with friends who are fellow congregants, about which way we fall on the issue at hand. We agree to disagree, and we all feel heavy hearted about how difficult this issue is. But we all agree that in this case, a list serve is not the proper forum in which to air opinions, grievances, differences. And yet, it won’t stop.
This morning, I was horrified to see that someone from our beloved synagogue used the list serve to espouse their belief that our clergy -- the most thoughtful, wise, compassionate, loving and committed clergy one could have, clergy that is as torn up about this issue as any member – has been hoodwinking the congregation. This poster had the audacity to assert that they believe the clergy was waiting for their dues to be delivered before addressing the issue at hand.
This is now officially out of control. And hideous. And the fact that a list serve can spawn such vitriol, that it can send usually calm and thoughtful people into spasms of accusatory bile, is breaking my heart. While I will not walk away from the community (as some have already chosen to do) I am stepping back from the core. This list serve outbreak has made my heart heavy, and I need to remove myself from its impact for a while.
Who knew? List serves, when they were first cropping up, were such an innovation. They offered up a way to connect we never had had before. I wish there had been list serves when my first baby was born – perhaps I wouldn’t have felt so isolated and lonely. I wish there had been list serves when we faced a crisis around my second pregnancy – perhaps I would have found some helpful information.
But the list serve discussions of the past couple of weeks have highlighted for me the danger of this tool. Just because we have access, and the ability to use it for discussion, doesn’t mean that we are all going to follow the rules of civility. For an important, difficult conversation, nothing substitutes for personal interaction.
So for me, for now, I am off the list serve line.
Photo by John 'K' via Flickr