Tuesday, February 7, 2012

“Six degrees of Separation”

You remember the game, name a movie and then try to connect it to Kevin Bacon by connecting actors or actresses that shared appearances, one to the other, in movies. The theory is that any movie (in the 90’s anyway) could be connected to Kevin Bacon in six steps or less. (Leading to the less popular and mathematically disproved theory that Kevin Bacon is the center of the universe.)

In John Gaure’s similarly named play, Six Degrees of Separation, one of the characters says, “I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names.... I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.”
It’s a fun idea. It’s an amusing party game for people inclined to trivia. It is even the basis of some interesting math projects. However what it is NOT is a form of comunication. And to try to use it a such is to beg for miscommunication and misunderstanding.

You are familiar with the idea. Instead of telling a friend that you felt slighted by a remark, a look, a missing invitation or failing to offer help, one might complain to a mutual friend, who repeats it. Soon people are talking in terms of conclusions, rather than actions: “She is insensitive.” “He is mean” “They only care about themselves.” And the real issue remains lost in translation. Additionally, it is nearly impossible to defend one’s reputation against unfounded accusations, especially in something so subjective such as opinion and perception. Pirkei Avot warns us not to rush to judge another man "Judge every person favorably" (1:6) and isn’t it often less the situation and more our assumptions about someone that fuel these negative conclusions?

In general, arguments and complaints by “six degrees of separation” only serve Lashon Hora and, sadly, sometimes slander. Why is it someone accused cannot speak directly to an accuser? Or vise versa. It would serve to keep these types of problems from becoming inflamed and serve to find solutions, which should be our objective. The Torah demands two witnesses in a case. Those witnesses are to be first hand, never someone who “heard” from someone else, who “heard” it from someone, and so on and with good reason.

Besides, consider your own experiences. Have you ever been surprised by someone being hurt by a remark you made or a perceived slight? Often people simply have hurt feelings and/or misunderstandings that are just that and can be sorted with a direct conversation. We could help further this if we suggested to a friend that they speak to a person directly. What good outcome has complaining or accusing behind someone’s back has ever served? It only serves to damage another’s reputation and we are to treat each other with respect; "Let your friend's honor be more dear to you than your own." Pirkei Avot (2:15)

There are two commandments in the Torah that address inappropraite speech. “Thou shall not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people.” Lev. 19:16 and “You shall not wrong one another.” Lev. 25:17 and the Rabbis DO attribute the latter to speech. Further, any negative speaking done about another is said to not only damages the subject’s reputation but the speaker’s and especially the listener’s because no harm could be done if no one listened. The Tulmud says that disparaging speech kills three: the person who speaks it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is told. (Arachin 15b). And if the comparison of Lashon Hora to murder doesn’t convince us of the power of speech, then perhaps we should be reminded that the entire universe is said to have been created by speech.

In most cases, people should be willing to speak for themselves and directly, to the person or people involved, in order to keep things above board and honest. If you’re looking for the truth, best to go to the source. It takes courage to be sure. And if it not worth mentioning directly, perhaps that itself is a good measure-that it is not worth mentioning at all. After all, we are connected, according to some theories, by six people or less.

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