A musical interlude

Religion makes people feel awkward. It even makes me feel awkward and I’m going to be a Rabbi! Some of that awkwardness is Britishness, a discomfort with talking about feelings, emotion and passions publicly or generally sharing things others feel are private matters. Some of it is an intellectual discomfort, am I really seriously talking about religion and God and stuff as a thinking (scientifically educated!) person in the 21st century? Some of that discomfort is because people worry that perhaps someone else is going to try and convert them, or they think that being religious means being intolerant or backwards in some way. For all those reasons, and many more, those of us working in the world of religious identity now and in the future sure have our work cut out!

Given this environment, I’m fascinated by the things that enable people to unashamedly and happily express themselves. In my community it takes two main forms. Social justice work and music. I work in a synagogue that hosts a local muslim community for Ramadan prayers every night at the moment. We held the first Jewish same-sex marriage. We were the first synagogue to go living wage. Social justice work has enabled our community members to grow in confidence and pride.

The other, more surprising perhaps, outlet for identity is through music. I’d be the first to admit that I’m not the most musically inclined, but music has an undeniable power to engage, inspire, enlighten and energise communities and to help individuals and groups express themselves and connect to others in quite incredible ways. I’ve spent the past few days singing and learning with a group of musicians from the US who are at the forefront of teaching and writing Jewish music* and watching how the group of young people I’ve been working with over the years have found form and voice for their values and identity through the music they’ve been learning and writing.

The first person to really ‘get’ this in the context of modern Jewish community was a woman called Debbie Friedman. Inspired by the music of Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez and others, she brought folk singing and liturgy together, creating an entire new vocabulary for Jewish life and practise. At Limmud in 2010 she kept us up singing until 4am on the floor of the bar for several nights in a row and seemed to have an invincible energy. She sadly died two weeks later, but having almost single-handedly re-composed the entirety of Jewish liturgy and beyond her music is still sung everywhere.

Debbie wrote the music she needed to sing, and inspired generations to do the same. It’s a powerful statement about how community builds when people share that which they are passionate about and enable others to find commonality.

So, on that (musical) note, here’s what that community looks and sounds like in practice:

*Its important for me to note that this isn’t necessarily religious music, a lot of it is secular or folk music, contemporary Israeli music or music without words (called a niggun).

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Each one of us has a name…

Zelda Schneurson Mishkovsky was a poet. Born in Russia in 1914 she immigrated to mandate Palestine at the age of 12. The daughter and granddaughter of famous Hassidic Rabbis (a mystical form of ultra-orthodox Judaism) she lived a life of ultra-Orthodox life, yet her poetry means she rose to prominence beyond what many/any would expect a woman from a closed religious community to be able to.

I want to talk about one of her poems in particular. Entitled לכל איש יש שם (Everyone has a name) it is one of those poems that has stuck with me since childhood:

Everyone has a name
given to him by God
and given to him by his parents.

Everyone has a name
given to him by his stature
and the way he smiles
and given to him by his clothing.

Everyone has a name
given to him by the mountains
and given to him by the walls.

Everyone has a name
given to him by the stars
and given to him by his neighbours.

Everyone has a name
given to him by his sins
and given to him by his longing.

Everyone has a name
given to him by his enemies
and given to him by his love.

Everyone has a name
given to him by his holidays
and given to him by his work.

Everyone has a name
given to him by the seasons
and given to him by his blindness.

Everyone has a name
given to him by the sea and
given to him by his death.

Zelda’s words touch at the heart of the issues of identity and circumstance I’ve been exploring. Each of us has names afforded to us by our actions, contexts, conversations, roles and relationships. Those names may well differ from place to place, but in their entirety they make up our selves.

Reflecting on the nature of identity that I’ve explored to date I notice how the discourse around identity as performance doesn’t really talk about how the ‘audience’ receives or understands that identity. The assumption is that which is produced by the ‘performer’ is that which is experienced by the other and my sense is that this misses something. Zelda’s poem observes that the identities we hold aren’t just given to us by the way we construct ourselves in particular situations, but the way that others experience us and our actions.

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On a totally unrelated side note, this is what the end of my evening sounded like:

Dogs and hot cars?

Some things just don’t go well together- socks and sandals, peanut butter and marmite, dogs and hot cars, but what about education and social media? The combination of the two sends shivers down the spines of many a teacher, igniting fears about privacy, boundaries, safety and regulation of online spaces, consent, misuse and so on.

If my MA has taught me anything its that, for better or worse, the zeitgeist in the tech world invariably finds its way into educational discourse. Mobile computing, virtual reality, and now web 2.0 with social media a key expression of its values. It makes sense, classrooms are communications technologies in their own right, and as the dynamics and character of broader social interactions change, its understandable that those interested in holistic, empowered and communicative forms of education are also interested in social media. 

That doesn’t mean its an easy fit, its complicated (although new purpose built social networking tools for educational settings are easing this somewhat) and also disruptive as web 2.0 principles challenge conventional classroom hierarchies.  

Leaving aside practicalities, of which there are many to consider, I think there are essential issues at stake. The foremost of these being the contextual value of actions. As Charles Crook observes, “Communication practices do not exist independently of the socio-cultural structures that communicating agents occupy“. In other words, context matters. This manifests itself in regard to things like the practice of collaboratively curating information rather than re-writing it. In the world of the internet, this is commonplace, but in schools where the structures still prioritise individualised assessment and would class curation as plagiarism, it doesn’t fit so well. Similarly, nobody HAS to listen to anybody online. Web 2.0 spaces are flat and somewhat self-regulating. This is fundamentally at odds with traditionally structured  formal learning environments which place the teacher in an elevated position and which often strictly regulate internet use. I also think there are stylistic challenges- when I use the internet for work I’m also usually listening to music and facebook chatting with a friend (I seemingly have a lot in common with the students Cook spoke to!)- and this kind of free rein is a considerable departure from what is permitted in schools. 

Some thoughts:

  • It’s ok to have differences between home and school– children will experience this distinction throughout their lives in the form of a personal/professional identity and home/work spaces and learning that there are different ways of communicating, acting and levels of sharing and social intimacy or informality that exist in these spaces is a good thing to learn.
  • Social technologies can be embedded in a particular community and don’t need to be connected beyond their context to have value- just as some workplaces use social tools such as Yammer to organise work and encourage thought, collaboration, self-publishing etc that utilise social media within a workspace, schools can do something similar without invading student’s private social spaces.
  • Informal learning environments which rely on peer community and material equally have a lot to gain from using social media– groups that form around learning such as sports teams, music groups, coding clubs, youth movements etc avoid some of the challenges that schools might face when wanting to go social. Whereas I find myself wondering how many kids really want to willingly spend their Monday night’s on the school’s instant messaging service talking about how cool their homework is, I don’t have the same concerns about how many kids want to learn new Judo moves, share sports skills, arts techniques etc.

Facebook’s ‘real name’ policy and the strange world of internet identities

UPDATE: This is getting silly. A week after writing this I can now list 3 more friends and 2 organisations who’ve had their profiles disabled because of this policy. FB insists they’re not on a drive but thats beginning to sound dubious…

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/u/chooter/ was fired this week from reddit and sent the ‘front page of the internet’ into meltdown.

When @Zozeebo tweets a link to a video, thousands of teenagers race to be one of the first 301 people to view it before youtube begins verifying views.

From LulzSec, Solo and Dark Dante to Berkeley Blue and Oaf Tobar, hackers are shaping our economic, social and political landscape.

What all these people have in common is an internet identity tied to a community, strongly expressed through their actions online that differs from their ‘real world’ name. Forums and online communities have long offered users the chance to define their online identity through their choice of user name. Those usernames, especially for individuals who contribute significantly to the life of online communities become synonymous with their character and within the shared language of internet socialisation, don’t seem to impede the building of relationships. It’s the ultimate example of a performed identity, the username or avatar construction becomes a vehicle for someone’s self to the point where they and their avatar are indistinguishable.

My own username history (including the infamous pre-teen buffy_angel_spike_4eva) reflects my growing sense of self and construction of my online life, but usernames do a lot more than communicate your interests (@iluvonedirectionomgwtf) or appearance (@talldarkandhandsome), they also enable people to try on new identities or genders and to hide from real-world dangers. It’s this particular facet of identity that is proving newsworthy.

I was prompted to post as a friend just shared this on facebook:

Screen Shot 2015-07-06 at 17.43.30

A public individual with an impressive career in the digital world, he has clearly been reported to Facebook under what they call their ‘real names’ policy. This controversial part of Facebook’s terms of service requires users to go by the name they use in the real world and which they can prove with official documentation. Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg’s justification for this is that “There are a lot of online communities that are separated from reality and the world. That we ask everyone to use their real name kind of grounds it to reality and ties it back to the person’s real identity,”. Whilst his point is interesting and in some ways represents the appeal of facebook to me, its not a generalisable principle for a number of reasons:

  • The ‘real world’ name someone has is not always the name they wish to be known by. This causes particular harm to members of the transgender community whose legal or documented gender may not correspond with their felt gender and for whom mis-naming and therefore often mis-gendering can cause harm. In that sense requiring someone to go by a documented ‘real’ name that they do not identify with is a form of violence.
  • Requiring ‘real names’ has become particularly problematic for the Native American community, with a number of individuals experiencing account shutdowns on facebook as users report their names (e.g. Shane Creepingbear) as ‘fake’. This is discriminatory.
  • Individuals who have been stalked or abused may wish to be able to hide from those who committed crimes against them, and using a real world name online makes them vulnerable.
  • Professionals in high profile or responsible positions e.g. musicians, doctors, politicians, journalists who receive a lot of attention are vulnerable to invasions of privacy if they can be found online. This can also expose their friends and family to unwarranted attention or invasion of their personal lives.

There are some fundamental problems with Facebook’s explanation:

  • It conflates offline life with real life as if online identity is bound in the social constructs of offline life.
  • It assumes that online friends aren’t able to connect more than one name or identity expression to a single individual.
  • It makes a value judgement about where authenticity lies and how it can be measured
  • It doesn’t acknowledge the strength of online community that is built through encountering an individual in conversation or exchange rather than through consuming their profile like reading a book.

As I reflect on how my perception of online identity has changed I am surprised that, given the fact that the constructed or performed nature of online socialisation feels socially and intellectually  problematic to me, I find myself wanting to strongly defend the right of people to self-define their identity and particularly their name online. Having said that I’m in little doubt that there’s a responsibility involved here on the part of internet users to be judicious in the way we manage the privilege of anonymity should we wish to avail ourselves of it, as it is misuse of this privilege that threatens our right to have it.