Some serious controversy has been stirred up at the ol’ alma mater. Here’s Wheaton Sociology Professor Noah Toly’s blog detailing the haps.
Basically, people live tweet in chapel now, and people live tweeted some pretty racially-charged comments. Nobody did that when I was at school from ’05-’09, but this latest fiasco doesn’t make me feel old at all. It highlights what, I believe is the most important issue of our generation. No, not racism. The internet. I posted this as a comment on Toly’s blog and I thought I’d repost here for what it’s worth, though for perhaps the most helpful and salient response, I’d point to English Professor Alan Jacobs’s post on the subject. I think he’s right on, but I already wrote this and it’s still fresh on my mind. Can’t help it. Must…hit…post:
Can another alumnus chime in here at length? I hate to give it the ol’ “back in my day” but I think something really needs to be said about the role of the internet in all this.
In anthropological terms (check me on this, Howell), something called ‘negative social sanctions’ are employed to ensure social acceptability. In the Wheaton context, this would probably mean saying “dude, that’s racist” when someone says something out of line. Imagine what would have been like to verbally say what was in those tweets in the middle of a circle of friends. My group at school wasn’t exactly sensitive, but even with us it probably would have at least resulted in some awkward silence or a counter-joke at the joker’s expense, and at the best of moments, a private confrontation asking the joker to think seriously about what he said and repent (and I was so blessed to go to a college where that actually happens). From there, the joker would know that he stepped over the line and not say anything like that in the future and, if he really thought about it, start to evaluate his inner attitudes and attune them to be more like Christ and less like a shock-jock stand-up comedian.
I take interest in this event, because I personally benefited from this kind of admonishment. I don’t remember the stupid things I said being racial in nature, but I can’t guarantee that it would not have been if the funniness yield was high enough or tweeting was ‘in’ or I didn’t happen to run with a racially mixed group. I have been saved from this unfortunate situation by the accidents of time and place and grace alone. Thanks be to God.
But now, there is no mediation, no social sanctions, Tweeting puts your thoughts straight into print with all the hesitation of a tap on a touchscreen. This is a very bad situation for everyone, and merits deeper thought than just labeling people ‘racist’. Racism is a sinful attitude and it should be dealt with as such, and the internet is a cold place for responding to sin.
Tweeters: if you weren’t trying to be racist, then why did you publish very racist-sounding, derisive jokes on what is basically an electronic billboard for everyone to read? The internet, and especially Twitter is not your private space to post things that have no consequences. Tweeting your random thoughts is the same as *printing them in a global newspaper*. Even if you didn’t meant them to be racially offensive, consider your audience and more importantly, consider your own attitudes and reasons for publishing anything you write. “The internet is written in ink.” the great Aaron Sorkin wrote in “The Social Network”. There is no editor for the internet, sorrowfully. Tweeting is not thinking, and your peers and professors are not ‘thought criminals’ to fire back at you for publishing your thoughts in that way. You gave them no context and no ‘deeper meaning’ (if there even was one) to prove that you are not in fact, prejudiced, selfish and mean. We need to retool the old maxim for the 21st Century: “If you can’t say something nice in 140 characters or less, best not say anything at all.”
Responders: Please do not be blind to the role of mass media in this. People think stupid things, sinful things and even racist things, and the reality of our time is that those thoughts fall from the sky like leaflets without any opportunity for thoughtful criticism or loving admonishment. I don’t mean to minimize the wrongs of racism, but I would encourage us to treat it as sin, rather than just an ‘issue’. Of course it is the tweeters’ faults that these issues have entered the public forum, so it’s natural that it would spark a public response, but I believe it would be especially merciful and Christlike to take the fight out of the digital realm and respond to it privately, confronting the offenders personally, not just in the Record or online. Public forums and prayer meetings are useful, because they are personal, getting people together in one room. It is the goal of the ‘priesthood of all believers’ to respond to sinners as priests to wayward congregants, not as illumined academics who now have a new and exciting issue to put down some juicy liberal arts-backed opinionating on the ‘Hegemony of Socially Instituted Racial Psychology in the Evangelical Mind’ or something. I’ll be praying for healing for my former campus this Lent and a greater sobriety toward the callousness of the internet and the realities of sinful attitudes.