A cure for the threat of instant outrage: Talking

Some African-American students at the University of Missouri, scene of a showdown in the last week over the administration’s alleged unwillingness to do anything about racism on campus, allegedly received anonymous death threats when the university boss was forced out.

When one student emailed professor Dale Brigham about an exam scheduled on a day when the students were threatened, he emailed back, the Washington Post reports.

“If you don’t feel safe coming to class, then don’t come to class,” Dale Brigham replied in an email that appears to have been sent to his entire class. “I will be there, and there will be an exam administered in our class.

“If you give into bullies, they win. The only way bullies are defeated is by standing up to them. If we cancel the exam, they win; if we go through with it, they lose.

“I know which side I am on,” Brigham wrote. “You make your own choice.”

The student didn’t like the answer, so he posted it on Twitter…

And Twitter did its thing, the Post says.

Soon the anger spilled beyond the confines of Brigham’s classroom. People posted his office phone number and e-mail address on Twitter

“How can [you] tell a student to face bullies when there are threats that he will die?” reads another e-mail posted to Twitter. “He is fear for his life and you are telling him to still risk his life to come to YOUR class to take a test? Are you kidding? These aren’t bullies we are talking about…”

A legitimate point, for sure. One that might hold sway in an actual conversation with the professor about his decision.

But we don’t have conversations anymore. We amplify.

Yesterday, the professor recognized the student’s concern, and he canceled the exam.

Then he quit his job.

“I am just trying to do what I think is best for our students and the university as an institution,” Brigham told KOMU 8 News.

A university spokesperson said the school will not accept his resignation.

Similar situations are spreading throughout the country, the Post’s Michael Miller writes this morning. He blames the smartphone.

“Their [professors at the school] experiences reflect a harsh new reality for American university professors: a combination of politics and technology has made it easier than ever for professors to become targets,” Miller says. “In the age of Facebook and Twitter, trigger warnings and microaggressions, college professors can go from being educators to the accused in the blink of an eye.”

Related: ‘That’s racist!?’ Why our addiction to outrage sells the debate over racism short (Washington Post)

  • Gary F

    Twitter bullies. Thought police. Maoists.

    • Maoists?

      • Jeff

        Marxists if you need another reference.

        • I’m just trying to wrap my head around what a communist ideology has to do with this.

          • Jeff

            Some view these outbursts in colleges we see today as something similar to what happened at the time of Mao, where people were encouraged to vent their anger towards capitalists (yelling in the streets)…but I agree, the college students don’t really have an over arching ideology in any way…they simply seem to be delicate little snowflakes and only want to discuss unicorns and ducks in college classes.

          • >>they simply seem to be delicate little snowflakes and only want to discuss unicorns and ducks in college classes.<<

            I'll have to ask my son about that. He's been in college for the past 7 years…

          • Gary F
        • Gary F

          Or Brownshirts?

      • Gary F
        • James Matthew

          Maoism is an ideology which the students don’t have, demagoguery is a tactic which it can be argued was used here.

          Accusing someone of demagoguery is to say there is a flaw in their thinking and character – that should be enough.

          The twitter commentators ignoring the context of the professors email to make it look as if the world was more fearful and even those holding to be your allies are actually enemies is demagoguery.

          Invoking Maoism comes close to demagoguery itself as Maoism included forced labor camps and summary executions which the students aren’t doing.

          Just because Maoism is a big scary title to put on people doesn’t mean its logical to do so if people aren’t Maoists.

    • lindblomeagles

      Maybe I’m missing something, but Gary, calling unidentified people Twitter bullies, thought police, and Maoists, all but assuredly makes Bob Collins’ point that Americans today, AMPLIFY, rather than communicate or respectfully discuss issues. You’re doing the very same thing Bob writes about. Secondly, I see a lot of comments, predominantly by white writers, expressing frustration and outrage that professors and the media have been, in some sense censured, from presenting an opinion about the situation on campus. And yet, what I haven’t heard from any commenters yet, is what solutions do you have for the rather detailed PHYSICAL and EDUCATIONAL assault targeted at Missouri University’s African American students? Really odd by the focus “free speech” keeps getting, is that Oregon’s Community College just lost the REAL, PHYSICAL, SUPPOSEDLY FREE lives of students by a gunman just two months ago. I hate to say this Gary, Bob, but, the focus on “political correctness” and “free speech” is exactly why the African American students at the University of Missouri DID NOT want the media covering their plight. Many of you have left THE MAIN ISSUE for these outer ones, leaving the students alone to face the very real possibility that a Dylan Roofs’ type gunman MIGHT JUST OPEN FIRE on a group of 20 some students as Roofs did in the South Carolina African American Church, as the shooter did at Oregon Community College; as the shooter did years ago at Virginia Tech. We can discuss these other issues much, much later. Right now, some people’s lives are in jeopardy of being snuffed; and that was BEFORE the 1950 organized, BEFORE the hunger strike, and BEFORE the football players got involved. Instead of looking for a way to take the students’ concerns less seriously, how bout opening a dialog about making their campus experience safe.

      • //Really odd by the focus “free speech” keeps getting, is that Oregon’s Community College just lost the REAL, PHYSICAL, SUPPOSEDLY FREE lives of students by a gunman just two months ago. I hate to say this Gary, Bob, but, the focus on “political correctness” and “free speech” is exactly why the African American students at the University of Missouri DID NOT want the media covering their plight.

        Not really. There’s a flaw in your argument and it’s that the professor had posted on Facebook requests to help get the media to cover the protests, which — it should be noted — they did quite well and quite contextually. So there’s no truth to the assertion that students didn’t want the media covering their plight. On the contrary, they recognized early that coverage of their plight was critical to alleviating it.

        The innuendo here is that the subsequent focus on matters of the right of someone to stand in a public space and take a photograph somehow neuters their message.

        But if you look at Tim Tai’s work — and it’s incredible — what you’ll notice first is that it does EXACTLY THE OPPOSITE.

        The new narrative that any attention to this side issue proves the students’ point has some strategic value — again, mostly in the social networking sphere — but has limited intellectual heft to it.

        The students realized that, too, but removing the barriers and welcoming the media to tell their story.

        Capturing the events of the world do not require anyone to choose which story to cover in a story like Missouri. You cover all of them.

        Editors, reporters, photographers choose how to cover them and at the end of the day, they chose very well and handled themselves with great professionalism, and served a mission of a well-informed citizenry quite well, indeed.

        As to the threats, of course you take them seriously. There’s a clear and present danger everywhere now. And people have to evaluate risk.

        It’s possible — possible, because social media doesn’t wait to know for sure — that the professor did and still reached his conclusion. We don’t know. Nobody wanted to discuss his thought process. And his student didn’t take the opportunity to try to educate him to her perceived threats and discuss alternatives.

        It is possible — as a Washington Post columnist wrote this week — that both parties here have excellent points and that there is a level of ambiguity in life that we resolve.

        This isn’t a problem, as I wrote, limited to Mizzou. At some point, we have to put our email down, put our smartphones, face each other in person, talk, and give one another benefit of the doubt until that talk provides us with better data.

      • Jeff

        Well sure, there were threats and the people who made them were promptly arrested. This is how it should work, of course there are racists out there…but everyone with light skin cannot be assumed to be a racist (which is assumed by using the terms “unconscious bias” and “white privilege”). The other thing we have to keep in mind is that these threats were made online…I’ve had many death threats online due to my more moderate/libertarian views…most of them are rather benign and I deal with them like an adult and assess the situation (I did have a rather graphic death threat once on WBUR’s comment section, the comment was eventually removed but I was appalled by the liberals who ignored it and tried to suggest it didn’t happen).

  • ec99

    We’ve raised a bunch of pampered, self-possessed kids, with an incredible sense of entitlement. Their omniscience validates their right to determine what course content should be, who should be allowed to speak on campus, and what constitutes being offended. Lamentably, administrators do not have the spine to respond to every instance of complaint: “Live with it.”

    • I don’t think it’s just kids. I think this is symptomatic of the death of conversation and human interaction.

      We don’t know how to talk. We don’t know how to disagree. We don’t know how to solve those disagreements.

      Perhaps we never did, but once there was a suitable replacement for direct communication, we certainly made it more difficult.

      I don’t believe this is a generational issue. I think it’s a technological and sociological one.

      • Jeff

        I agree, I’m a person who enjoys a good discussion/debate on issues but even people in my generation (I’m in my early 30’s) tend to run away or try to change the topic…especially women (I hate to generalize, but that’s the tendency I see in my experiences). It’s as if people would rather “get along” and talk about trivial issues instead of ever having a serious discussion about serious topics. On top of that I see a major lack of critical thinking skills in many, many people…especially these students in colleges today…many people think if you insult someone else that is a great debate point and has some sort of validity in the conversation (instead we should recognize the childish mudslinging for what it is). I’m not sure what we can do to change the situation because everyone seems to go into their own corner…retreat to their own echo chamber and hunker down there…I enjoy differing perspectives and go out of my way to engage with those I tend to disagree with (I’m right leaning but enjoy MPR/NPR due to the general lack of bias although I’ll still find it once in a while; but it’s still 10x better than the echo chamber you hear from most talk radio).

    • (((DerpyDeplorables)))

      I seem to remember reading something by Plato or Socrates that complains about the lazy kids who should get off the lawn… Every generation thinks the next one is entitled and lazy. This is nothing new. Communication, however, has changed substantially in the last decade or two.

      • jon

        Remember the “Me Generation” Bunch of spoiled lazy kids who spent all their time protesting things they didn’t like instead of just going to vietnam and fighting communism.

        Or the greatest generation where they protested in what would later be called the civil rights movement…

        Or their parents that protested in what would be called women’s suffrage…

        Why My mother didn’t even know how to use a horse drawn plow…
        My grandmother didn’t have to till the field by hand.
        My Great grandparents didn’t even suffer from the black death.

        Lazy kids all of them…. but this next generation, they are going to be the ones that cause society to crumble completely!

        Or to take generations into account in Bob’s orignal post:
        http://xkcd.com/1601/

        • The kids were right about Vietnam.

          That all said, none of this has anything to do with how we communicate with each other, or our specific choices not to.

          I don’t see the decisions made by the student in this case to be any different from the decisions made by the fossils in the U.S. Capitol.

  • Jeff

    To gain a full understanding of this situation please read this article in the Atlantic, very detailed and very in depth. This article is about what is going on at Yale.

    http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/the-new-intolerance-of-student-activism-at-yale/414810/

    • Jason Mock

      Thank you. Fantastic article.

  • Jeff

    Here’s an interesting video that might hit too close to home when it comes to higher education:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iKcWu0tsiZM

  • Kassie

    I found professors can be, at times, the least easy people to have conversations with. University classes are run with the professor as dictator and any reason a student can’t come to class or can’t finish an assignment is just an unacceptable excuse. Death threats? That’s just an excuse, they will be there, so you should be. How do you have a conversation with that person?

    • With THAT person? Probably with some difficulty. OTOH, you just did what far too many people do. They rearrange the words, simplify the statement and reduce it to its most condescending form, and then walk away saying, “how can you have conversation with this guy?”

      But I would suggest that given the ACTUAL words of the professor, a response might be, “can I call you and we can talk about this?”,

      It’s a lost art.

    • Jeff

      It really depends on the professor and what level of class you are at, in freshman classes with 300+ students in them the professor will not accept any sort of excuse for missing a test.

      Although I’ve had personal experiences in both directions at the University of Minnesota, in an upper level electrical engineering course I had a really good professor who would change test times so that we didn’t have major tests falling the same day as another electrical engineering class since many students were in both at the same time. Yet, another class (Biology) I had a professor that refused to make accommodations for me since I had an electrical engineering final at the same exact time as the Biology Final…he expected me to come in on Christmas Eve (even though all finals were supposed to be done a week before that) to take a “much harder final” than other students received. In the end, I just showed up late to my Biology final…since it was only an hour late I was able to complete the final, in fact I was out of there and some people were still taking the test.

  • Gary F

    Just think, back in the 60’s and 70’s the malls of academia were full of students who wanted to “stick it to the man”, they wanted free expression, to challenge the status quo. Now they are “the MAN”, they want to hinder free speech and free expression, and have raised their children to be hyper sensitive to any thought that disagrees with their world view. That the revering of victim hood status gives them the power to bully and stifle the idea of free speech.