"Fifteen Minutes of Fame" and a Lifetime of Notoriety

One of the effects of the rise of social media and “reality” entertainment is that we are all, in effect, in danger of becoming the topics of tabloid stories. It used to be that you had to be already famous at least to some degree for anyone to be interested in the stupid things that you said or did–whether those things resulted from a momentary lapse in judgment or a pattern of dubious behavior.

Now, if your story goes “viral,” you are tagged with it for life. In effect, your “fifteen minutes of fame” become a lifetime burden.

To some degree, of course, this has always been so.

When my mother attended her 60th high school reunion, she was surprised by how many of her classmates were still alive and able to attend. She said, “Even the three guys who dove into Lake Lincoln were there.” When I asked her to explain, she related how after their prom, these three guys, who had had too much to drink, decided to go for a swim in Lake Lincoln, which was kind of a midpoint between a pond or swimming hole and a public swimming pool: that is, it was fed by streams but had a slate bottom. Periodically, the streams that fed it were diverted, the “lake” was emptied, and the slate was scrubbed. These three guys didn’t know it had been emptied for cleaning, stripped off their clothing, and dove into the slate. They had enough broken bones that they either missed the graduation ceremony or participated in casts.

The point is that sixty years later, when they were probably grandparents and had already retired from long and at least somewhat successful careers, they were still being referred to as the three guys who did headers into the slate at the bottom of Lake Lincoln. Ironically, Lake Lincoln itself had already been replaced by two large swimming pools and a wading pool.

That’s what commonly happens in small towns. It is why people sometimes feel compelled to move away—to get far enough away to escape anyone who remembers.

This sort of notoriety is now being generated on a more universal scale—but without any of the compensations offered by small-town life. And it is much harder to escape.

All of this brings me to the cases discussed in Aaron Barlow’s post, “When an Instructor Authors Odious Facebook Comments and Resigns, Is Academic Freedom Involved?”

Not very long ago, O’Connor’s comment might have been no less controversial, but the controversy would have been largely confined to her department or college. People in other colleges within the university may very well never have heard about it.

Likewise, Linsker’s story might have been a somewhat major news item in a small, local newspaper, which means that it should have have gotten at most a sentence or two in a major urban newspaper.

But both stories have become much “bigger” because of the impact of social media on traditional media. More precisely, the stories are “bigger” but actually no more significant in themselves than they would have been before the rise of social media.

So, the major problem in arguing about principles such as academic freedom and freedom of speech in reference to stories such as these is that, by the time they come to attention, they are already framed by gross distortion and a loss of any sense of proportion.

Consider again the LInsker case. One might ask—should ask—why the mayor of New York is even aware of what an adjunct faculty member is accused of doing during a street protest—never mind why the mayor thinks it is appropriate to demand that the faculty member be fired for what he did. Doesn’t DeBlasio have many, much more important issues to address as mayor of the nation’s largest city? Surely, on the day that Linsker was arrested, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of New Yorkers who said or did things much more concerning than anything Linsker said or did.

I am referencing the Linsker case and DeBlasio’s response to illustrate that this is a problem that extends beyond party affiliation. Indeed, it is very tempting to say that most of the attacks have come from the Far Right, but I think it is more precise to say that they are coming from those representing or responsive to special interests, which translates to politicians promoting the corporatization and privatization of public higher education. In their view, faculty should not have the rights of academic freedom, shared governance, and tenure, but, instead, they should be reduced to low-wage workers who are employed entirely “at will.”

Unfortunately, it is hard to say whether Arne Duncan’s appointment as Secretary of Education has been more a cause or an effect of the alignment of more Democrats with the corporatizers and the privatizers.

What I can say with more certainty is that until faculty such as Steven Salaita are rehired and allowed to pursue productive careers, such cases are going to have a disproportionately chilling effect on faculty’s willingness to express their personal opinions on political issues—on faculty’s willingness to engage in debates on the most important issues of the day.

It amounts to a gradual silencing of some of the most articulate and intelligent people in the country.

The only way to fight it, I think, is to attack the motives and ideological positions of those making the attacks. In effect, the weapons that they are using against faculty need to be turned against them and those who support them, whether that support is explicit or implicit. We need to engage in these actions civilly but very persistently. (To give a turn to the haunting, deathbed admonition of the main character’s grandfather in Ralph Ellison’s Invisble Man, we need to let them choke on our civility as we question their suitability for passing such judgments.)

There is an analogy in how faculty should deal more broadly with issues involving administrators. One of the few advantages in the development of a distinct and itinerant administrative class is that most administrators are very cognizant that a Google search can be a career wrecker. Thus, when issues reach an impasse, it is very important to start addressing them in online forums. It is not necessary to engage in the sort of very personalized characterizations such as those that some of our students indulge in on sites such as Rate My Professors. It is more than enough simply to lay out in plain language the details of the impasse and the reasons that it has occurred. Any accumulation of those sorts of items is ultimately much more damaging than even the most cleverly elaborate denunciation.


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