Splitting Hairs

My blog announces to the world that I am introspective in the extreme. I traverse endless loops of thoughts that circle in on themselves endlessly until I absorb a nugget or two of learning and move on to the next big adventure of the mind. But introspection often requires a bird’s eye view of the mechanisms within, a need to hover over oneself and examine the causes and consequences of ones actions.

It is 1:40 AM in the morning and some near and dear, loved ones, who stop by this blog, may get mildly concerned about my propensity for extreme introspection at this early morning hour. The room is dark, the house is quiet except for the clickety-clack of my fingers on the keyboard; some much-needed quiet time. But I need to relive the events of the past few days, I need them captured and preserved.

So for the next few hours I’ll become a spectator in this arena of angst and acrimony being played out over several days. I must talk about the events that led to the final hellish destination, conduct “morbidity and mortality” (M & M) analyses of my role in these events.

Here’s my perspective:

  1. Shakespeare & Co. announces a sestina writing theme.
  2. A writer on the network announces his objection. He feels strongly about poetry and is fresh from an experience on another network where he has denounced what he calls “lazy poetry”.
  3. In some ways he’s saying one must learn to walk before one runs.
  4. His objections are noted. But the network is not about to change the weekly theme.
  5. He continues with his objections.
  6. A debate ensues. There are only two participants in this debate. A prolific writer and poet who often experiments with structure and form and is dedicated to the art of poetry and the person above, who doesn’t much care for such experimentation and is adamant about his point that sestina writing is not an appropriate exercise for our network.
  7. The rest of us sit back and watch the progressive escalation of this debate. Calm descends over the network as nothing else gets posted while this important debate unfolds.
  8. Then we sense a change in the winds, the debate turns personal and edgier. Here’s a quote from this debate, the readers can evaluate the astringency of the tone or the offense factor here for themselves:

“My reasons for objecting to the “sestina” as an exercise was that too much bad poetry appears on the board anyway and such an exercise appeared to encourage it. As someone who seems to have no literary device for distinguishing between good and bad poetry, this is clearly not a problem for you. Furthermore, as the great purveyor of, dohas, limericks, 55vers and god knows what else, it was always perfectly clear that an exercise involving “sestinas” would have you at least purring like a cat that’s found the cream.Let us have one thing clear: your attitude to poetry and literature is the anomaly and not mine. You are not impressed by the tradition because (it seems) you haven’t even read most of it! As I said before, from my point of view, you are like a musician who wants to be a composer, but has never actually bothered listening to the Western tradition. Anyway, you will forgive me for not always being filled with wonder every time you “google” something new. Some of us spent our time reading rather than googling.I might finish by saying that (in my opinion) most of your poems, slap dash as they tend to be, show profound structural weaknesses (now and then, there is a pleasant turn of phrase, which should encourage us not to totally give up on you). Indeed I would love to criticise your forthcoming “sestina” as I imagine such a critique might actually be of some help to you!”

The highlighted sentences here were showing definite signs of escalation but I wasn’t about to do anything yet.

  1. The responses from our experimentally inclined poet here were mild and within acceptable standards of debate. But we weren’t done with the escalation yet. This followed:

It’s also worth mentioning that on Ryze boards one needs to keep referring to these points frequently because so few people here seem to have really “read” the classics (nor their criticism!). When someone writes “this was wonderful” do they mean “wonderful” by the standards of this board, or “wonderful” by any standards? Very likely they have never even considered such questions and it is here that criticism can help to keep a balance. Most of what I’m saying would be merely standard stuff in the English Dept. of a Harvard, Yale or Oxford University: in any place that thinks seriously about literature.

At this point of the debate, as moderator I am concerned but not alarmed. I am merely wishing they would stop. I sense that the insults would keep growing and the next post might say something derogatory and insulting to every member of the board. Every moderator who monitors and observes a debate would watch for these signs, I believe.

  1. Then the first of many private messages arrive in my mailbox, expressing concern:

“Have been following the exchange between A and B on the feedback for this week’s theme. Am curious, are we allowed to get this personal on a public board? And do you think A’s assessment of the general lack of talent may discourage members from posting? It’s one thing to provide constructive feedback for a particular post and another to be generally dismissive. Just curious.”
As I indicated, this was the first of many messages I received about the ongoing debate. It appeared to me that the situation was increasingly unstable and that I needed to do something about it.

  1. I make a decision to close this discussion thread with the following announcement:

This topic needs to be closed now, wouldn’t you agree?This discussion has started getting personal and comments have been made in passing that could offend the members of this board in general.You are entitled to your opinions but in this public forum, you are not permitted to make sweeping remarks that show condescension and dismissiveness toward members of the board, nor do we need to witness personal attacks. This is not the place for it.”

The thread was closed. One of the parties to the debate politely inquired as to why I had taken such an action and I told him that I had to consider the wishes of all members of the board. He may or may not have agreed with my decision but he didn’t pursue the matter any further.

However the next thing that the original objector to the sestina did was post a piece on his blog that speculated that Shakespeare & Co. was a network run by two bankers one of whom was steeped in literature and the other (me) who hadn’t a clue about literature and that the network was a means to finance an operation where Indian students in America were transformed into Americans. He went on to express disdain about the network and its members and suggested that he would continue to use that particular corner of cyberspace as a means to receive free advertising for his own works of literature.

I was shocked and stunned by this post. Mostly stunned at its tone, its viciousness and its paranoid nature. It seemed to appear out of nowhere because I had always had cordial, if not friendly, interactions with this person. I had found him rude, arrogant and abrasive but respected the fact that he wrote well. I had even spent several tedious hours archiving all the stories he had ever posted on the board and giving him a special link and place of prominence on the web page of the network. He had even uttered something complimentary about the effort. He had on occasion praised some of my own writing as well. This person is a friend of a friend and I always heard that he was a quiet, unassuming sort of person. So considering that background I was stunned beyond belief to see what he had posted.

There have been other events in my moderating history, events which haven’t made sense to me because they have failed to fit any frames of reference I carry around in my head. This incident topped them all. So my immediate reactions were captured in the post you may or may not have seen below.
The post made by this writer and my own reactive post took on the status of a long drawn out war over the next few days. I was thankful to have many supporters and upset to see a steady stream of venom spewed on his blog from people who had called themselves my friends before.

Things have quieted down today after I made the decision to remove this writer from the network. I didn’t want someone who felt such animosity toward our group, who wanted nothing to do with our board except the use of free advertising space and was increasingly abusive to us, to continue to be associated with us.

That should be the end of this sordid story, shouldn’t it? Except in my mind there still are unresolved issues that have nothing to do with the boorish behavior of this individual.

  1. Did I do the right thing in closing the increasingly volatile thread that threatened to upset the members of the board?
  2. Did I do the right thing in removing this member from the network?

Those are the two immediate questions. The other questions I need to ponder, even if it means the attribution of some credibility to the rantings of this madman:

  1. Is it better to say nothing at all if I am not sufficiently inspired by something that is posted on the board, than to offer words of encouragement and occasionally, gentle critique to the members of the board?
  2. How far can I let matters escalate before it becomes important for me to step in and moderate?
  3. How concerned must I be when facing a barrage of emails and private messages that recommend a certain course of action, should I act on them immediately or should I let things play out until the discussion in question loses steam or enters the territory of irretrievable damage or irreversible disaster?
  4. How important is it to try and keep everyone happy?
  5. Should disruptive members be kept on board indefinitely or should they be banished if the majority feels they should be?

I know the answers to many of these questions, intuitively, even as I write them out, yet they still fall in the “easier-said-than-done” territory when events are actually unfolding before me.

9 Comments

  1. You analyse it and sum it up so well Pragya. Personally speaking I think there was little else you could do in the circumstances: after all it is the greater good which matters in the end, and that means the lovely network you've so painstakingly built up, and the fierce loyalty it commands among members.Think no more about it. For us, the writing is all!With you always!

  2. Its easy to second guess.The best sign of a leader is the ability to take unpopular decisions.Consider consensus opinions but be guided by your instincts even if everyone disagrees.Being in a position of authority brings detractors, no matter what.You must not allow yourself to be affected – please try to develop a thick skin.I personally think you handled the situation very well and I see no purpose in debating what you might have done differently. You are already extremely tolerant. You jolly well have every right to remove anyone you please – it is your benevolence that permits the network to exist and not those who feed from the trough, like me. Those who don't like it may migrate elsewhere. Or spend $100 and create their own. Its a free world. I personally do not think I have the guts to be a moderator. Even if I did,I could not match your caliber.Regards VM

  3. You are among the most mature and at the same time humble people I have ever interacted with. No one could have handled the situation better than you did.Am proud to be associated with the network and extremely glad of the fact that I can call you one of my friends.

  4. Prags, at the risk of sounding hackneyed and repetitive, I'd like to say that you handled the situation perfectly well, and with grace. Don't brood over it anymore — it takes a lot of integrity and gumption to manage a network like S&Co., and while varied opinions might help you see both sides of the coin, it's upto you, as the leader, to do what needs to be done. It is important to maintain a sense of decorum and civility – and that should suffice to keep everyone happy. Else, you draw the line, as you have every right to. At the end of it, the purpose is to encourage good writing. Period. Chin up now and look forward to only the best!Ronj

  5. The Prof. has made the point re. leadership and all it entails.You have been extremely fair, is all I'd say.

  6. This message is for the sad, unfortunate anonymous from Mumbai, Maharashtra, whose Internet Service Provider is Reliance, who appears to have some kind of a message for me. It appears to be an illiterate sort of person who uses LOL a lot and signed with an initial 'P' once. That really points to one person. I am sorry life has been so hard on you. But time may heal the wounds and you'll emerge a stronger, less embittered person.Pragya

  7. Agree with all the others. You've done the best thing that could be done. And there's no doubt at all in my mind that you've been objective and fair in all your dealings. You make a great moderator, and I'm very glad to be part of your network.ano

  8. Pragya, I feel you did the right thing. You are a balanced and sensible person; sensitive and tolerant. I read everything from the posts to the blogs to your blog…and hats off for being graceful and dignified. 🙂

  9. Hope I still consider me your friend regardless of whether I am on the network or not.:-)


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