Why the Donald Sterling Fiasco Won’t Initiate a Dialogue on Race

The headline read, “Hall of Famers expect league to support Sam”. Of course the league will support Michael Sam, the all All-American defense lineman at Missouri who is the first openly gay active player in the history of the NFL.

But not because NFL locker rooms are especially progressive places. Some players are sensitive to people’s differing sexual orientations, others are decidedly not. As the Donald Sterling illustrates, social media will silence the Decidedly Nots. Sterling went from owner of the Los Angeles Clippers to a pariah in 72 hours. Similarly, any player caught communicating homophobic things about Sam will immediately feel the full weight of instantaneous social media. And any hope for commercial endorsements will be dashed.

One thread of the Sterling coverage has been “If anything positive comes of this, we need to initiate a discussion on race”. There’s little chance of that because social media tends to create a mob mentality with everyone racing to tar and feather the offending homophobe or racist. That creates a chilling effect on what would help initiate a discussion on race—each of us reflecting honestly on how we pre-judge people different than us. Instead of introspection, we pile on the offending person like an unthinking football player ignoring the official’s whistle.

Unlike social media, education depends upon dialogue and dialogue requires that people trust their point of view will be respectfully listened to. The key is to distinguish between racist or homophobic thoughts, words, and actions. Excellent teachers learn to work sensitively with homophobic thoughts and words, but when it comes to hateful actions, of course people should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Excellent teachers learn to work with racist or homophobic thoughts and words by exploring their underlying root causes by asking students questions such as “Why do you believe that?” They know that seeing the world from other people’s points of view does not come naturally. They expand students’ worldviews by introducing them to unfamiliar people and places through literature, the arts, and sometimes travel. And by teaching students to substitute curiosity for negative preconceived notions, so that they too learn to ask others, “Why do you believe what you do?”

What College Professors and Adminstrators Get Wrong

In the age of social media and smartphones, what expectations—if any—should professors have for privacy for lectures and communications intended for students? That’s Colleen Flaherty’s question in Inside Higher Education. The larger question is what expectations should any of us have for privacy?

Flaherty tells the story of Rachel Slocum, assistant professor of geography at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, who was. . . 

stunned earlier this month when what she thought was an innocuous. . . email to students about why they couldn’t access Census data to complete an important course assignment became national news.

Her email. . . blamed the “Republican/Tea Party controlled House of Representatives” for the shutdown and consequent U.S. Census Bureau website blackout. Then it appeared on Fox News, the Daily Caller, and in her local paper, after a student posted a screen shot on Twitter. It also caused uproar on campus, prompting numerous calls and emails to Chancellor Joe Gow, who sent an email to students, faculty, and staff distancing the university from Slocum’s ‘highly partisan’ comments.

Slocum said she probably wrote the email too quickly upon hearing her students couldn’t access the site, without sufficient explanation of her political reference. But the chain reaction was hard to believe, given that she never intended—or thought—that her email would be seen by anyone outside of her geography course.

Stunned, really? Michael Phelps can’t smoke a joint inside a dark fraternity house without smartphone pictures of it appearing in major newspapers. Why was it “hard to believe” your email was tweeted? It could’ve just as easily been forwarded, uploaded to Facebook, and blown up and pasted on the side of La Crosse’s busses.

Another tenured professor of creative writing at Michigan State University had his teaching duties reassigned after he embarked on “. . . what’s been described as an anti-Republican ‘rant on the first day of class in August.”

And Facebook helped Santiago Piñón, assistant professor of religion at Texas Christian University, make headlines last month, when a student he invited via email to a study session for “students of color only” posted the message on her page. Almost instantly, the invitation, which many said discriminated against other students, went viral.

Timeout while I replay in my peabrain what I said in class yesterday afternoon. Yikes! When discussing education reform I took shots at Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, Tom Friedman, and 44. When those deets are made public my university’s administration will probably throw me under the bus of public outrage too. If this blog goes dark sometime soon, don’t be surprised. Know that I cherished you dear reader.

Slocum said she saw close monitoring of professor’s words by watchdog groups as potentially chilling to free speech, and as a means of waging the nation’s current political battles on a new front, to the detriment of higher education overall.

Fear is the lifeblood of watchdog groups. And spineless administrators. That’s why tenure is so important. Slocum shouldn’t retract what she wrote, instead she should explain it to any upset students. Granted, they probably won’t agree with her reasoning, but their only concern should be whether Slocum’s politics prevent her from fairly assessing their work.

Gow, Slocum’s chancellor, said that. . . he would have responded “exactly the same way” if Slocum’s email had blamed Democrats or any other group for the shutdown. Both he—a longtime communications scholar—and La Crosse value free speech and academic freedom, he said, but now more than ever the actions of faculty and staff can influence public support for higher education.

Ultimately, Gow said, the Internet has “greatly blurred” the line between what’s public and what’s private, “and we do need to remember that what we’re saying to students may be shared more broadly.”

Come on Gow, “greatly blurred,” really? Try erased. “Blurred” might make more sense if Gow had actually come to Slocum’s defense. Read Gow’s words again. He’s saying maintaining public support trumps free speech and academic freedom.

Gow said that ideally, a student who was offended by a professor’s speech would try to settle the matter internally, first through a conversation with that professor, then through more formal complaint mechanisms as needed. La Crosse also takes student evaluations seriously in personnel decisions, he said.

Could Gow be any more out-of-touch with college students? This generation doesn’t do direct interpersonal conflict. For shitssake, they break up with one another via text messaging. Then there’s Gow’s mind numbing student evaluation hammer. All these years I thought student evaluations focused on whether students learned anything of value in their courses, but I guess they’re at least partly designed to determine whether students are ever made uncomfortable by a professor’s politics. Note to Assistant Professors at Wisconsin La Crosse—wait until you get tenure to express anything that could be deemed the least bit political.

Slocum expressed similar views, saying that taking complaints to the Internet before the institution “seems a breach of trust” and removes them from their context.

Of course that would be preferable, but it’s naive to expect it. Wisconsin La Crosse can update their student honor code, and implore students not to take their complaints to the Internet, but some still will. This generation lives on-line. You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.

At La Crosse and other institutions . . . Gow suggested that professors make up their own rules and include them on course syllabuses—as some faculty at various institutions. . . already do. But, the chancellor said, enforcing those policies could be another complicated matter. “That’s kind of uncharted territory there, isn’t it?”

Now I’m starting to feel sorry for Gow. And this excerpt heightens my sympathy for Slocum:

This had never happened to me before so it was a new, unexpected and unpleasant experience, Slocum said in an email. And I didn’t expect it because my emails to students are the boring stuff of ‘Why didn’t you turn in that’ or ‘Here are some important points to remember,’ rather than anything that might cause fury on the Internet.

Here’s some unsolicited advice to my syllabi writing brethren whether Packer fans or otherwise: Do not expect the Internet Generation to come to your office to discuss their concern with your politics. And don’t be surprised if they take surreptitious screen shots of you* and your communication. Or tweet something you’ve said or done. Or post about something you’ve said or done to Facebook. Express partisan political views at your own risk.

* I was a recent victim of surreptitious screen shoting while Skyping with the college senior. Told her about a fun Saturday night out where her mother and I watched Flamenco dancing at a downtown Olympia pizza joint. To give her a little flavor flav of the evening, I demonstrated my pretty astounding flamenco skills. Unbeknownst to me, she took a screen shot midway through the demo. Within a few minutes some of her friends on Facebook were eating it up. The worst part of that whole infringement of my privacy? You need video to fully appreciate my mad flamenco skillz.

The Electronic Guillotine

As recent events in Brazil and Turkey, and on the Food Channel illustrate, it’s difficult to exaggerate Twitter’s influence. It can destabilize governments and vaporize a Southern, white woman with a successful television cooking show. That is, if the woman allegedly uses the “n” word off screen.

Until a few days ago, Dean was the Southern, sixty-something host of a popular cooking show on The Food Channel. Some combo of her emails, transcripts, and audio-recordings recently surfaced, materials filled with racial epitaphs. Pre-twitter, you would have never heard that story. It would have been buried inside an industry-specific periodical or local paper. Now, thanks in part to Twitter, most everything is national or international.

Pre-twitter, Dean would have been in human resources hot water. She would have been required to attend diversity training workshops and probably been placed on some sort of probation. But given her show’s advertising revenue stream, the suits in charge would not have fired her. However, when the Twitter wave turned large and angry enough, the suits sacrificed her job on the altar of electronic public opinion.

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What happened to Deen on Twitter reminds me of what happened in the public schools I attended in my youth whenever fist fights broke out. All of us went Pavlovian and immediately ran towards them. The mob mentality of our youth is alive and well on Twitter. Now that we’re adults, we’re still running towards fights, we’re just using Twitter applications to do it. The first to arrive on the scene are immediately outraged. Then independent of much meaningful knowledge of the case, Twitter friends and acquaintances figure they’ll be outraged too. You know, solidarity.

Read about another equally illuminating recent example of this phenomenon here. In both of these cases, the perps hurriedly offered heartfelt apologizes, which on Twitter, only fueled the fire of people’s disgust. Whenever an electronic mob gains sufficient momentum a tipping point occurs where the suits decide the potential long-term damage to their brand’s image is greater than the short-term financial rewards of the pre-crisis advertising revenue. At which point, the Deens of the world can prostrate themselves in front of news cameras all they want. They’re dead men and women walking.

The electronic mob forms so quick there’s no due process for the “defendant”. Perception is reality, whether it’s the least bit accurate. No need to try explaining. Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

It also squelches reflection and meaningful dialogue about class, race, gender, sexual orientation—diversity in all its forms. We still have a lot to learn about how to live together peacefully. When hateful and hurtful private thoughts or words are made public we should take the time to talk to one another about where the hate comes from, why it’s so hurtful, and what might be done to right the wrong.

With Twitter, we’ve created a swift and lethal executioner. The way we’re using it, we’re robbing ourselves of teachable moments that we desperately need.

Twitter is Like a Very Large Dinner Table

Facebook seems to thrive on nostalgia for the past. I like Twitter because it’s present tense in orientation.

Twitter is like sitting around a very large dinner table with guests you get to choose. I have little interest in faux, electronic, celebrity friendships. I choose guests who 1) make me laugh on occasion; 2) keep me informed about things I care about; and/or 3) share links to articles and videos about things I care about. Those I follow sit around the table and slide reading and multimedia material to one another saying, “Have you read or seen this?”

Sometimes Bill Simmons at ESPN, Alan Shipnuck at Sports Illustrated (golf writer), and John Dickerson at Slate can be funny. Among a few others, I follow Slate Magazine, the Atlantic Magazine, The Economist, Bonnie Ford, Atul Gwande, Walt Mossberg, and some of the bloggers I regularly read.

Most people think of Twitter success in terms of followers, the more the better. I’m more interested in the quality of the dinner conversation than the quantity of guests. And some people think the secret to more followers is to tweet more often. For me though, the more you tweet the more you have to make me laugh or keep me informed. If you tweet just because you like the sound of your tweets, you’ll soon join the ranks of former dinner guests.

Speaking of laughter, this skit is comic genius.

January 2013 Awards

Tweet of the month. “Of course I’d be willing to let the Postal Service continue to dope if it would speed up mail delivery.” Nikolas Kristof

Sports stat of the month. Bench Points—Clips 41.7, Lakes 26.5. Bench Rebounds— Clips 20.4, Lakes 13.4. Bench Assists—Clips 8.7, Lakes 5.4. Bench Steals—Clips 3.8, Lakes, 2.0. Bench Blocks—Clips 3.6, Lakes 1.1.

Unanswered question of the month. Did Beyonce lip sync her National Anthem performance?

Sports loose-end of the month. The likelihood that the Sacramento Kings will move 619 miles north before the start of next season.

Bush league sports move of the month. Azarenka’s “injury” timeout against Sloane Stephens in their Australian Open semifinal match.

Worst losses of the month. Gold—Seahawks 28-Falcons 30. Silver—Butler 64-GonZAGa 63.

Gracious loser of the month. Sloane Stephens.

Best basketball quote of the month. “If you have to bounce the ball three times and flip it and twist your arm before a free-throw, it probably means you can’t shoot ’em. Wynton Marsalis’ youth basketball coach.

Anti-swoosh event of the month. The European Tour’s Abu Dhabi golf tournament where Swoosh Senior (Tiger Woods) and Swoosh Junior (Rory Mcllroy) missed the cut.

Multibillionaire quote of the month. “I like today what I liked fifty years ago. . . I was happy when I was in my twenties, and I don’t see a reason to change things.” Warren Buffet

Parenting essay of the month. Coming Home: Returning to parenting after 16 months on the campaign trail. John Dickerson, Slate Magazine.

Book release of the month. Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright

Television shows of the month. Gold, Portlandia Season 3. Silver, Downton Abbey Season 3. Bronze, 30 Rock.

Movie of the month. Tie. Silver Lining Playbook and Zero Dark Thirty.

Word of the month. Tradecraft.

EXPLICIT cold ass honkey music vid of the year month. Thriftshop by Maclemore & Ryan Lewis.

Insight of the month. Michael Apted, documentary filmmaker on 56 Up. “That was a very important lesson I learned throughout the decades on the film, that I can’t project my version of happiness or success or ambition onto other people.”

Unappreciated health danger of the month.

Social Media Scorecard

Me evaluating social media is like Rosanne Barr evaluating singers of the National Anthem. I’m old and hopelessly behind the curve, a late, late adaptor, better suited to anti-social media. Plus I’m skeptical by nature and my experience with the different sites is limited.

Facebook. Not only am I skeptical, I dig solitude, and I have non-conformist tendencies. So when everyone began telling me I HAD to get a Facebook account, I figured that was good reason not to. Alas, six months or so ago, a close friend from high school dragged me on. I have very few Facebook friends compared to you. I’m not sure why, but until recently, I’ve been checking it a couple of times a day. It’s been nice learning what some old friends are up to and since my blog posts appear on my friends’ pages I’ve seen a slight uptick in readership.

Sorry Zuckerberg, apart from that, the negative side of the ledger is much more substantial. I don’t feel like I’ve really reconnected with any old friends on any meaningful level and the quality of content is weak. Once you friend someone you have no control over how many times they post in a given day and the quality of those posts. Far too few add meaning to my life. Worse than that, they’re a distraction from life writ large. Not that my content is so spectacular. I’m sure some of my friends would prefer not getting a link to every blog post I write. It’s like being on a landline, having wires crossed up, and listening into another conversation. Fun! For two minutes listening to two other peeps. No so much when it’s hundreds of people all day and night. I assume Facebook fanatics, for which there are hundreds of million, learn how to read very selectively. Instantaneously processing value within an incessant content stream is a modern skill I don’t really want to develop.

Conclusion—Facebook has detracted more than it’s added. Allegedly worth $100b, so I’m in the minority. That’s cool, I’m comfortable there. Final grade, D.

LinkedIn. A former student kept asking me to link with her, then a few other people, and I eventually waved the white flag and created an account about the same time I first Facebooked. Again, you have more contacts than me. I suck at networking maybe because I just want to be left alone most of the time. Also, I don’t like the design of the site, too busy and confusing. Maybe if I was 24 and looking for a job I’d think differently about it, but I rarely check it. It’s added little to no value to my life. Yet a passing grade because it hasn’t really detracted either. Final grade, C-.

Twitter. Just when you thought I was a lost cause, a social medium I’m completely down with. There’s a special place in heaven for whomever came up with the 140 character limit. I’ve just started following people and orgs including Bill Simmons, the Lonely Planet, some newspaper reporters, and a UCLA sports website. So nice to learn instantaneously useful tips for driving in Brazil and which UCLA team has lost. Bonus points for the minimalist design and ease of use. It’s a snap to add and remove people, no “defriending” drama. I may just get a tat of the Twitter logo sometime soon. If Facebook is worth 100b, Twitter is a 1t company. Final grade, B. Would have been higher, but I deducted points because too many purveyors (or is it perve-veyors) of porn are slipping through in the form of new followers.

twitter logo bird

Postscript and related link—On a recent morning, while cycling, I watched a documentary about the current status and probable future direction of journalism titled “Inside the New York Times”. David Carr, the Times media writer, played a central role. I now follow him on Twitter. I really liked this blog post from him on the limits of on-line friendship. Highly recommended.

I Promise

If elected President to give up golf for the length of my term(s). Presidents deserve and need downtime, but symbolism matters, and playing golf is about as bad as it gets. At least for Democratic Presidents. People want leaders that are more like them, than different. Just practice your putting stroke and invite Boehner over to watch the US Open on television.

If elected to Congress to keep my privates private.

If elected Governor of New Jersey, to drive, not helicopter, to my children’s events.

If elected to Congress, not to advocate for abstinence education and then have an affair with one of my staffers.

If given a Nobel Prize and Oscar for my work publicizing the threat of global warming, to keep my monthly electricity bill under $1,200/month.

If running for the Republican nomination for President, not to call for a crackdown on illegal immigration and then use undocumented Guatemalans to tend to my lawn and tennis court.

If elected to Congress, as hard as it may be, to refrain from tickle fights with my male staffers.

If elected to Congress, to refrain from emailing photos of my shirtless self to any women I might meet on Craigslist.

Until then, however, I can’t promise any of those things.