Thursday, May 12, 2011

“Bad influences” are everywhere. Deal with it.

Jewish people disagree – in fact we are torn – about what to do with the modern world. The issue, particularly for those who believe in following tradition, is "bad influences," which lead one to be tempted to sin.

In the olden days, the community could excommunicate bad influences, a.k.a. "heretics." Their parents mourned them as if they were dead, ripping their clothes in grief.  (A la "Fiddler on the Roof.")

Today, these same people are alive, in a community sense, because they are established community presences and are not going anywhere soon. They can't be squashed.

We have to deal with them.

The government is in a parallel situation when it comes to social media.

In the past you could silence dissenters simply by ignoring them or denying them access to official channels of communication.

Today they have laptops hooked to the Internet and free subscriptions to Blogger, Wordpress, Facebook and Twitter.

Unfortunately, though, these people are too often seen as "bad influences" because they speak in "disrespectful voices" saying things that are "offensive."

I'm not talking about criminals now. Not slanderers, not traitors, not liars or people who want to harm the government in any way.

No, these people are simply challenging the government version of things and the government way of doing things. They are demanding accountability and transparency.

And they have loud microphones. And listeners.

We have to deal with it. We have to deal with them.

The perceived dangers of modern life are extremely intense for the observant Jewish community nowadays. Sometimes they go too far. Like in the much-discussed altered photo published by a Hasidic newspaper, where they showed a male-only version of government leaders watching the Bin Laden capture.  

There are other practices too, that would make the modern person's hair stand on end. Like clothing store supervisors who check that the clothes being sold are modest (similar to the practice of supervising food supervision to ensure it is kosher). It so extreme that it borders on the paranoid, compulsive, bizarre.

But I come from Hasidic background (Satmar) and I can tell you – this is a very spiritual and very devoted population. And they are damn scared of becoming as spiritually degraded as they think the modern world is. They don't think they're better at all. Rather, they know how tempting and how easy it is to fall.

This fear is not limited to the Jewish world. If you ever saw the movie "Footloose," where the pastor tries to keep the high school seniors from having a (to most people) ordinary dance, you know what I am talking about.

The other day I did carpool and gave a Muslim student a ride home. She covers her hair – in high school – something Jewish girls do not do. We passed a woman on the street with her entire body shrouded except for a little slit for the eyes.

I couldn't help but say something. Basically I was gasping mentally in horror, but didn't want to offend the student, so I asked her about it. She said something to the effect that she personally disagrees with the head-to-toe covering. That it is supposed to keep attention away from the woman in theory, but puts her at the center of attention in practice.

In the olden days I would not have had this conversation with this young woman. We would have been completely isolated from one another. But we spoke to each other in real voices, a real conversation. A conversation more powerful than anything an official channel of communication can generate because it's honest.

There have always been real conversations between people that serve as a counterpoint to what comes out of official channels. The "problem" for government today is that these conversations have gone from the private sphere to the public one – they are taking place online.

What the government does not seem to understand is that from a consumer point of view, "official" sounding talk is a failure. People today don't care about titles and hierarchy. In fact they don't trust them. What they do care about is real information. Who they trust is – friends and opinion-leaders who are either unbiased or have strong values that resonate with their own.

So people today, and I think more and more in the future, will get their news and information not from the government so much, and not from the conglomerate-owned media, but more likely from the people around them. From influencers whose voices sound honest, and credible, and objective, and reliable. From people who have no stake in the game other than to communicate "what's really going on."

If the government views social media as a "bad influence," inherently offensive, objectionable, disruptive, disrespectful, undermining, and so on, then a huge opportunity for communication has been missed. Worse, all the money we are spending to reach out to people is in danger of being wasted.

What we need to do is accept that the playing field has been absolutely leveled. We are now on the same playing ground with everybody else. We have no advantage, or maybe we have a disadvantage because we are biased toward the policies, programs, and organizational structures that we have and want to promote. 

In the real world of communication, this means that we have to change not only the tools that we use to get out there, but also the attitude toward the kind of people who normally use those tools. People who use their cellphones to take a picture of something unjust, then share that picture on Twitter, are social reformists. They're not passive sharers of information.

We must respect that social media users have strong views, are passionate about the power of information, and demand nothing less than total transparency (to the greatest legal extent possible) and a simple, honest, clearly understandable voice.

Very specifically, here is what I suggest.

Rather than putting social media on the sidelines of our communication with the public, and using it as a one-way interaction tool – we must put it at the center of our communication strategies. Not hide behind press releases. Not hide behind website jargon that has no space for comments.

The public is on Facebook. On YouTube. The public is in McDonald's. The public is at the mall. The public is sitting in their cars.  The public is working, if they're lucky, at badly paying jobs all day, and they play the radio to give them a respite from the thankless tasks they must do. They read the news too. And they like to see the "Letters to the Editor." Sometimes more than the "news" itself.

Everything we do to get through to the public must be social, must be shareable, must be from the perspective of a trusted friend.

It's time to stop pushing away the "bad influences." It is time to start learning what to do, and how to communicate, directly from their successes.

Times have changed, and we in the government have to change too.

I hope we can do this soon, because we need to.

So for all of us who are trying – a collective –

"Good Luck!"

*As always, all opinions are my own.