‘Asians in the Library’: The Value of Social Networking

adsit80By John Adsit
Editor, Curriculum & Instruction

“So we know that I’m not the most politically correct person so don’t take this offensively.”

So begins the infamous video. I don’t know the young lady personally and so cannot comment on her specifically, but I would like to take a moment to dissect that sentence because I think it reveals a lot about parts of our culture in general, and I believe it shows why incidents like this, within social media, can provide a positive value for our society.

By saying people know she is “not the most politically correct person,” she is essentially saying that she frequently makes comments like this. She then says that the fact she does means that people should not be offended by it. That last part makes no sense at first glance. For example, if I frequently burgle houses, does that mean you should not be upset if I burgle yours? However, I feel the true reasoning behind that statement can be understood by an analysis of the phrase “politically correct.”

As the term is used, it means more than merely conforming to socially accepted norms of speech in reference to certain sensitive topics. People who use the term do not do so neutrally. They deride those who use politically correct language, and they pride themselves for not being politically correct. The implication is important: politically correct people hide the truth — what they really believe — behind a mask of political correctness. People who are offended by straightforward talk are too sensitive and afraid to face that truth. The full implication of the term is that society in general feels a certain way about certain topics but is prevented from speaking freely about it because of a politically-based need to conform to an unreasonable code of conduct.

This reminds me of a famous case from a decade ago. In January 2000, baseball pitcher John Rocker was quoted making racial and homophobic slurs, resulting in a huge public outcry. He had intended his remarks to be taken humorously, just as this young lady’s intention seems to have been, and he was as surprised by the response as she was. When it happened, I wondered if the reason he made those remarks in the first place and was so shocked by the response might not be a result of his environment. I wondered if he wasn’t used to making and hearing comments like that among his circle of friends, friends who saw the humor in comments like this and would not let political correctness get in the way of a good laugh. He had no idea that the readers of Sports Illustrated might feel differently.

Birds of a feather flock together, and there is a general tendency to assume that what you see and hear in your circle of friends is reflective of society as a whole. Like the remedial writing class I once taught that genuinely refused to believe that there are people who go through life without being arrested even once, many people think that their circle of friends represents mainstream thinking and behavior and are thus shocked when they discover they don’t.

Therein lies the value of social networking sites, especially those that break people out of that tight circle of friends. People who post their views might suddenly discover that the jokes and comments so admired by friends are not as well received by society as a whole. People might suddenly discover that people genuinely find something offensive and are not cloaking their true feelings behind politically correct statements.

This depends upon the nature of the social network, though. It is essential that the forum be broad enough in its constituency to show that the world includes people who truly are offended by certain attitudes. When a University of Texas football player used a racist term and suggested hunters get their guns when Obama was elected president in a post on Facebook, his attempt at humor led to his dismissal from the school and the loss of his scholarship. If he had instead posted the remarks on a site like gunboards.com, he might have gotten the good laugh he was expecting, as this one thread suggests.

A broad-based social networking system can expose people to a wide variety of views and allow them to emerge from provincialism. It can be an important part of an educational system. Changes might come about as a result.

Or they might not.

They might instead simply see this as one more example of political correctness run amok. After all, John Rocker was not persuaded.

15 Responses

  1. John,
    1) if John Rocker was booted for his racial and homophobic slurs, then why did the dean of students at UCLA say about the author of the Asians in the library video:

    the university will examine Wallace’s video to see if it violates any part of the student code of conduct. But (..) the code does not usurp the authority of the First Amendment…

    2) Re what you say about the need for broad-based social networks: that’s one of the reasons why Ning’s move from being a network of networks to being a host of isolated ad hoc networks hugely decreased its usefulness for education.
    3) Your analysis of the refusal of political correctness is right on the dot. With one exception, though: when an administration uses a politically correct phrase to describe a category of people as a fig leaf on the fact it is doing zilt towards granting them their civic rights, then the people belonging to that category are perfectly justified in finding that this is adding insult to injury.

    • John Rocker was a professional baseball player.
      You may have meant the Texas college football player in your comment. I actually was going to reference him in reply to the comment you made on Jim’s article on the topic–that was what led me to this longer article.

      It is an interesting question. It indicates that there is a line that the Wallace video might not have clearly crossed but that the football player’s did. If you read the discussion from the Gunboard.com site I posted, you will see that they didn’t see why he was booted, either.

      I think in the football player’s case, just hinting that people might want to assassinate the President of the United States because of his race was too much. Additionally, a football scholarship has special rules and can be rescinded at any time for conduct that is harmful to the team. He would have had a hard time being a cohesive part of a college football team after making those comments. The conditions of his scholarship amount to a contract in which he agreed to follow a certain code of conduct.

      I have no idea about the UCLA code of conduct, but it is possible that it precludes the dispersal of certain kinds of speech that might not be covered in the first amendment. The courts ruled years ago that the first amendment does not allow one to shout “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Similarly, an employer does not have to retain the services of an employee who brings disrepute to the organization. There have been cases of employees fired for making statements about how terrible their bosses are on sites like Facebook.

      Wallace may have the first amendment right to say something without fear of recrimination from the courts, but that does not mean she would be immune to consequences of another kind.

      • Thanks for your clarifying answer, John, especially the last paragraph. The broadness of the US First Amendment – and the workings of commonlaw-based legal system – are at times baffling for foreigners like me who live in countries with a Roman/Napoleonic legal culture, and criminal laws against racism advocacy.
        Actually, such criminal laws often backfire: when people sue the publisher of racist statements under them, judges then have to examine whether such statements are advocacy or not. If not, the author of the racist statement can boast that it got court approval.
        So on the whole, the US approach seems more sensible, as far as I understand it.

  2. John,

    I think we [people in general] need some perspective here.

    First, the opening of the video is actually “Okay, so here at UCLA it’s finals week,” and I think it tells us a lot. We’ve all suffered through finals week, and we understand that most students are pulling all-nighters and running on coffee fumes. Stressed and exhausted, and sometimes desperate, they may not be as tolerant of distractions as they might otherwise be.

    Second, she’s a student in a learning environment, and I believe we should not hold undergrads to the same standards as public figures. College is a place and time to experiment with ideas, to take risks, to be expressive, and in this environment tolerance and a suspension of judgment is critical. To maintain this atmosphere, the price is sometimes a statement that’s over the edge.

    Is the cost too great? I don’t think so because the alternative would be fear — fear to express ideas or question the status quo.

    You’re right about group-held views and their effect on members, but I don’t know if we can assume that college students are so isolated that they’re not aware of norms outside their groups. In fact, I think they’re very well aware of what is and isn’t acceptable.

    In giving her the benefit of the doubt, I’m assuming that she’s bright and a good person, and in her apology, she tells us that she wishes she could take it back. I don’t think it’s a reflection of someone filled with hate. Instead, it may be a reflection of someone who felt safe enough in her college world to cross a line that she might not otherwise, and the stresses of finals didn’t help any.

    She doesn’t deserve the wrath that’s fallen on her. Nor does she deserve attacks on her character. She’s young and has her whole life ahead of her. Let’s not pass a lifetime sentence on her just yet. [Revise the last sentence to: Hopefully people won’t pass a lifetime sentence on her just yet. 3.21.11] -Jim S

    • As I said, ” I don’t know the young lady personally and so cannot comment on her specifically, but I would like to take a moment to dissect that sentence because I think it reveals a lot about parts of our culture in general, and I believe it shows why incidents like this, within social media, can provide a positive value for our society.”

      A careful reading should show that I was talking about a generic concept and not this specific case. I tried to explain how social networking in a broad based group can break limits created by an isolated past.

      Does it apply in this specific instance and this specific person? I don’t know. On the other hand, I do know that I said that I did not know if it applied to this person in the first place, and I do know that clearly said I was speaking to a general concept and not to an individual person..

      I do not see where it was that I attacked her character nor passed a lifetime sentence on her. If you can point that out to me, I will stand corrected and repent.

      I do, however, still stand by the key idea of what I said–choosing to make controversial statements in a public forum can induce consequences that force one to examine those statements and the ideals upon which they are based as one has possibly never done before, and that is not a bad thing.

  3. Hi, John. My error. I know you well enough to know that you haven’t judged her. You make a clear distinction between her and “people” in general and state, up front, that you don’t know her and, thus, can’t comment on her.

    I should have been as clear. In the last sentence, “Let’s not pass a lifetime sentence on her just yet,” the “us” is supposed to refer to people in general but, in the context of the comment, it indicates you and me. Thus, I’ve added a revision: “Hopefully people won’t pass a lifetime sentence on her just yet.” Best, Jim

    P.S. I also added a qualifier for “we” — meaning “people in general.”

    • Hi, John and Jim

      Re passing a life sentence on Ms Wallace, my first reaction to Jim’s initial post and to the articles in UCLA’s The Bruin was that she had done so herself. She studies political science, and seems to have cut herself off the job opportunities for such a degree with that video: what media, what school, what diplomatic service would employ her if folks googling her might find that video?

      And then, the transcript you both link to is far more damning than the video itself, because there is no qualifying body language or intonation, and also because being text, it is far easier to reach via a search engine than the video. At the local level of ETCJ, even though Jim antedated it April 3, 2008 so that it does not show in the “Recent Posts” in the left column, it’s getting more hits than either of your posts, and heaps of them come via a google search for “Alexandra Wallace transcript” (without quotes).

      Even though this transcript is labeled transcript, people are likely to analyze it as a written text, without taking into account that the words were spoken in front of a webcam in a moment of exasperation.

      • Claude, I added the video to my article (in case readers don’t know it’s widely available on YouTube) and the transcript (in case people don’t realize it’s from a video).

        Clarification: John A did not add a link to the transcript. As editor, I did. Also, John neither mentions the student’s name nor links to the video.

        Re the ante-dating — there’s a note at the top of the page clarifying the date. I use this dating procedure primarily to keep from cluttering ETCJ’s opening page with supplemental sources.

        Thanks for these helpful comments and the opportunity to clear up possible confusion. Best, Jim S

    • What happens next is up to her, and there is no reason things can’t change.

      In his famous “I have a dream” speech, Martin Luther King alluded to the governor of Alabama, George Wallace, using him as one of the greatest symbols of racism in America. Earlier in the year Wallace had made his inaugural address with the famous line “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” As governor during that time period, he did all he could to prevent the segregation of Alabama schools. In his campaign for re-election in 1970, he launched what Jimmy Carter said was “one of the most racist campaigns in modern southern political history.”

      A decade later Wallace renounced his previous positions, declared he was wrong, and apologized for his actions. In his last term as governor, he appointed more blacks to government positions than had ever been done before. In his last election, he won a narrow victory, largely because of the voting support he got from his black constituency.

      In her video, Ms. Wallace created the circumstances that brought her to this situation, and it is within her power to prevent it from being a lifetime sentence. If George Wallace could do it, then she certainly can as well.

      What is needed, though, is a commitment to commute her own sentence. George Wallace renounced his past, and his later words and actions showed his apology was sincere. In contrast, John Rocker continues along as he did before.

      America will give her a life sentence if she chooses to earn it. But it has to be what she really wants. [Revision: “America will remove her life sentence if she chooses to earn it.” 3.22.11]

      • My last paragraph was intended to say, “America will remove her life sentence if she chooses to earn it.”

  4. John–re your analysis of “politically correct.” I agree that when people say proudly that they are not politically correct, it is intended to “deride” those who are. I don’t remember when the term began to be used as an epithet, but I do think it is interesting that the accusation is that the politically correct person is somehow obfuscating the “real” issue. We can’t talk about real things in public because someone’s feelings might be hurt.

    Well, sometimes feelings do get hurt–even by open and thoughtful comments, not just by riffs to let off steam before exams.

    The problem with creating a straw man and knocking it down (politically correct speech covers up the real issues, so we can sneer at those who use it) is that the thing you claim to advocate (straightforward talk) becomes anything but an open and frank analysis. It becomes the diatribe, the slur, the harmful stereotypes that keep us from looking at what is really happening.

    I ask–has anyone, as a result of this video, thought about the issue of cellphone use in the library and what that means to students who are trying to work before exams? We can be sure that it is not only Asian students who are offenders. Or could we have a conversation about what it really means to learn self sufficiency and independence? These are conversations that will not happen now.

  5. Like many of the commenters I also have a knee-jerk reaction when someone refers to political correctness. Therefore, I won’t comment more on this.

    However, shortly after reading this column, I was listening to a podcast of Dick Gordon’s The Story and he was interviewing a young Muslim man from Canada who is a musician and film maker. He has often been stopped at the border for hours and/or not allowed into the US. What struck me about his story as relevant for this conversation was that toward the end of the interview, he said that he thinks that the Internet rather than bringing people together is making it easy to drive us apart. I had also heard something recently about the uses of social media – we tend to (as humans tend to do anyway) gravitate towards those who are more like us.

    Here is the link:
    http://thestory.org/archive/the_story_1167_Yassin_Alsalman.mp3/view

    • His comments on the Internet driving us apart brings me back quite a few years. The school at which I worked had an extremely gifted student who went through all of our curriculum (and more) very quickly, and so going into his last year in school we got creative and offered him a combined English and Social Studies independent study program that was set up much like a Ph.D dissertation. We even had him defend it in front of a panel of experts. I was one of his advisors.

      His topic was how the Internet’s ability to bring information to the masses (the information age) would transform American Foreign Policy. As a part of his dissertation-length final product, he created a complex calculus-based formula to predict change based on an increase in information. I advised him of what I perceived to be a flaw in that formula/slash theory early on, but he persisted. When he defended the project, that problem became the focus of discussion, and he finally realized that the flaw was quite serious.The math was fine, but the key variable was flawed.

      He assumed that with all that amazing amount of information available, citizenry would be more informed and thus better able to participate meaningfully in foreign policy decisions through the democratic process. His formula assumed all change in information would be in the form of an increase. In our discussion, we realized that the opposite could be true. Access to a wide variety of news channels could lead to isolation from information as the public narrowed their information sources to news organizations with narrow political agendas.

      Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, information sources were limited. Many newspapers were of course seriously biased in their reporting, but the really biased ones were known. I am reminded of a line from a description S. J. Perlman of an incident on a train: “I asked the porter for a newspaper, and the poor man, being hard of hearing, brought me a Los Angeles Times.” On the other hand, many newspapers had reputations for objectivity, and there was a journalistic code of ethics that most followed. Television was limited to a few channels, and there was again something of an attempt at journalistic integrity.

      Today it is possible for people to get all their information from sources that make no attempt to provide an objective point of view. The more slanted, it seems, the better. Many of the news sources are people who have no background in journalism at all. If it is sensational, it will sell, and it gets aired immediately with no urge to check the source.

      It appears as if the information age may better be called the misinformation age.

      • That is very interesting example that gets right at the crux of the issue.

        This discussion highlights the need for critical information literacy. I am currently at a conference in Poland. At lunch yesterday I was talking to a young man who is a doctoral candidate and he has been teaching high school for 5 years. We were bemoaning the lack of critical thinking skills of many students in the US and in Poland. The subject of the Internet came up and we agreed that students (and I think many others) think that the Internet is 1) the only source of information and 2) that anything published on the web is true, valid, and accurate.

  6. Lynn: “young Muslim man . . . said that he thinks that the Internet rather than bringing people together is making it easy to drive us apart.”

    This is worth writing about. What does it mean? What does it say about human beings and technology?

    I’d better get some sleep before trying to tackle this. -Jim S

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