Who defines good, as in she is of good character? Who defines what is right, as in doing the right thing? More and more it seems that those who insist on being seen as the arbiters of good and right are progressively more morally bankrupt. And while those who insist that they can define good and right are aggressively imposing their views on a wider population of individuals, those who are truly good and right remain passive, silent, being infantilized all the while confusing character with personality. The route of this change is a bottom up one where the most vulnerable are the ones most frequently targeted.
Defining character and personality is important for understanding our evolving world. While social interaction with people who may be different or difficult is not a new issue it is a challenge we are forced to deal with in a world where both narcissism and religious fanaticism continue to gain ground. Personality is an external attribute, easy to read and easy to understand. Personality can be defined by just a few key descriptors such as saying that someone is extroverted, shy, agreeable, lazy or anxious. According to many researchers personality is inborn, genetically determined and somewhat difficult to modify. While the external behaviors of a personality may be changeable the underlying personality is less likely altered. Character on the other hand is more difficult to discern.
Character traits may be observed in individuals only when the person wants to show them. They include being kind, nurturing and honest. Character traits may be altered but only with a sincere effort. When we say that someone is of good character we are saying that she or he is someone we can rely on- they have our back. When we say that someone has a good personality we are saying that they are fun to be with.
People may have a good character and a difficult personality. These individuals may act off-putting or strange but are very kind hearted and caring. Others may have a wonderful external personality and a very negative character hiding beneath. These are individuals who are outgoing and friendly, they draw you in with their warmth but have no emotional concern for you. The greatest problem most people have is assuming that personality and character are always the same. If someone acts nice we believe that their actions are who they are and immediately assume that they are nice. That, however, is often a big mistake.
The Rebbe who tells his student that if he does not wear his tztitzit or daven with the right kavaneh will die a horrible death or the morah who tells her student that if she does not wear her skirt to her ankles will lose her feet in a terrible accident or burn forever in gehenom may each have a wonderful personality. They may be superficially but sincerely friendly and agreeable with their students and the parents. There is no doubt that the administration of Bnos Yaakov Elementary School in Lakewood, New Jersey have a fine personality but their recent letter to their students about what happens to girls who do not dress in the fashion that they expect and are tortured in burning clothes suggests an underlying character flaw. The damage they are causing their students can be life-long. Because of their rigid characters these teachers and school leaders may not have the essential kindness necessary to work with children. They may truly love working with children and earnestly believe what they are saying but in their earnestness their underlying character controls the horrible presentation of their values.
We find these teachers with negative characters but overtly nice personalities teaching in our schools with increasing regularity. We wring our hands about students bullying other students. We are concerned about their characters but we do little if anything when teachers do some of the most painful things to our children. And we are even more troubled when we see our children following their lead “flipping out” to mimic poor character or worse drifting away to a character style that is anathema to who we are and who we know our children should be.
Just like an abuser targets a vulnerable person and grooms them so too does a bully or person of questionable character pick an environment in which to work their influence. That is precisely why they work in school settings. Too many school administrations applaud the harshness of some of their teachers and act in ways that add to the abuse of their students by pressuring parents, by threatening to excommunicate families, by throwing children away using the “school’s reputation” as an excuse to continue to allow abusing teachers to continue their ways. Far too often I am asked to negotiate for parents with schools that simply do not seem to want to understand the difference between normal teen behavior and pathology. And now I am increasingly asked to explain to schools why I will not share details of therapy of a child and parents with the school administration.
To be sure this is not true of all schools but there is a steady creep of this behavior having begun in the ultra- right type schools but finding its way into moderate and even more liberal settings. It is time for parents to become involved again. Too much reliance on the reputation of a school and their teachers is a lax approach that can have long lasting consequences. Personality is important but the character of the school and the people who make up the administration and educational staff is far more important. Parents can and should band together to focus on the character of those they entrust their children to.