The situation at hand centers around some discussion taking place on the mailing list of my local shapenote group. I need to specify "on the mailing list" as opposed to simply "in the group" because the one doesn't necessarily reflect the other. And, like all unmoderated mailing lists, it is absurdly easy for one individual to dominate the tone and temper and topics of discussion through sheer volume alone (as is the case here -- in spades). Out in the real world social structures tend to squelch such things.
The vast majority of messages on this mailing list come from an individual with great passion for the music and its history and meaning but with something of a tin ear for social nuance. This leads to suggestions and ideas and comments that tend to fall a little flat among some others on the list, and even (in many cases) to annoy some people greatly. The subject of concern in the case I'm writing about here is what you might abstract as suggestions for how to encourage and help new singers. That seems innocent enough from the outside, I imagine, and certainly a worthwhile topic, but the writer in question was making proposals that, to the perspective of some other longtime singers, would alter the nature of the singing in a way that would make things less, not more, appealing. This is not the sort of topic that should inspire the level of annoyance it has been inspiring, but a long history of experience with the naunce-deaf writer comes into play. To add to the annoyance level, any response at all, no matter how short or politic, yields a defensive response from the original writer that is four or five or six or ten times as long. This is what I mean by a tin ear for social nuance.
The appalling turn the discussion took today is that the writer pulled out a very sweet note from a now-deceased traditional singer in the south, writing about the music. This was meant to be a defense of the writer's original proposal. I excerpt the quoted note here. The older singer puts things into the explicitly religious terms of his culture and tradition, which I know many of my readers don't share -- nor do I for that matter -- but I trust you'll get the point. The topic here is what might become of the music's meaning as it becomes better known.
...if a person comes unto to you and is cold you give them your shirt. If they are still cold you give them your coat. The references are to the spiritual shirt, your spiritual coat which we posses in the Old Harp Tradition. If you give it away you will also become warmer. (If you cling to that coat and unwilling to share, you will become colder)
I have always said the next person who walks into the door to sing with us is the most important person in this room. We should all understand that, (or mayhaps we are not the people we think we are) It is said that the first shall be of the least and the least be of the first. Amen.
Ok, this -- and the whole letter from which I took it -- really was lovely. But the absolutely clear point of sending this to the mailing list today was that the person who sent it was using it to claim that she was the one giving up her spiritual shirt, and the people who disagreed with her suggestions were the ones unwilling to share . The writer had previously implied that people who had disagreed with her suggestions were somehow opposed to helping newcomers (again, that social nuance thing, since that had never been what folks had been saying). But here she takes on the mantle of heavenly providence. Which leaves those who disagree with her methods somewhere out in the spiritual cold.
I expect the next email message to quote Luke chapter 4, verse 24, the bit where Jesus says that a prophet is without honor in his own land.
This is appalling, of course, but the point I'm trying to make here is how easily the writer slipped into a self-aggrandizement so great as to imply divine goodness. I know that the writer would argue viciously that this wasn't her intention at all (and no doubt it wasn't consciously so), and would most likely be deeply and sincerely upset that I would imagine such a thing. And yet there it is, plain for all to see. Isn't that amazing?