What Do You Say to a Roanoke Truther?

This blog has included many posts about faculty members who have been demonized for statements that they have made on social media and/or who have been haunted, professionally and personally, by things that have been posted about them on social media or on the Web. Though there are permutations of this phenomenon specific to academia, it goes without saying that this is not a problem exclusive to academia. But this afternoon, I came across an article that seems to me absolutely essential to any full understanding of and any more visceral appreciation of the broader context in which these issues are playing out.

The title of this post is also the title of a piece written by Ben Collins and published in the Daily Beast. Collins is a longtime friend of Chris Hurst, the fiancé of Alison Parker, the reporter for a Roanoke television station who was recently gunned down while reporting a story on live television.

The lunatic fringe of the gun-rights movement—and I do not use the phrase “lunatic fringe” in any figurative sense here, because these people are truly certifiably insane—have started trolling Chris Hurst on e-mail and social media, calling him out for falsely claiming that he was Alison Parker’s fiancé.

Oh, and Alison Parker was not murdered either.

No, according to the conspiracy theories that these lunatics have embraced as the God’s honest truth, this horrific murder was staged by forces in the U.S. government that are determined to create a public outcry against gun violence that will enable them to strip all Americans of their right to bear arms.

Yes, you read that correctly. Here are the relevant paragraphs from Collins’ article:

“In the minds—and YouTube videos—of some conspiracy theorists, Chris is not a news anchor at WDBJ in Virginia. Chris, the videos say, is a ‘crisis actor’ invented less than a month ago by the United States government as part of a false flag operation that will eventually allow the New World Order to take away every American citizen’s guns and force them into a life of subjugation and tyranny.

“Every day now, Chris wakes up to find strangers’ hate on his Facebook wall that he has to personally delete. Or he’ll Google Alison to find the people he has to thank for donating to her scholarships and he’ll see, instead, another conspiracy theory YouTube video, viewed 800,000 times over, that says Alison was in on it all along, and that she’s been given a new life and maybe plastic surgery by the government. . . .

“The most recent one says Alison was dating someone else and that she and Chris were never together at all. That person is really Alison’s ex-boyfriend, who conspiracists found by looking through her old Facebook photos.”

In preparing to write this article, Collins interviewed psychologists and sociologists in an effort to explain why people could possibly believe this sort of rabidly disseminated nonsense.

He quotes the following from Pitzer College philosophy professor Brian Keeley’s book Of Conspiracy Theories: “Conspiracy theorists are, I submit, some of the last believers in an ordered universe. By supposing that current events are under the control of nefarious agents, conspiracy theories entail that such events are capable of being controlled.”

I have a different theory: these people are bat-shit crazy, and at the very least, they should be prohibited from ever owning a firearm.

Yes, we should make every effort to confirm their worst fears about our determination, as a society, to seize all of their weapons. Not everyone’s weapons—just their weapons.

And if they persist in trying to purchase or in carrying firearms, we should sentence them to stand on street corners, chained to lampposts, with sandwich boards hung over their shoulders that read on the front–“I Have So Completely Lost My Mind”–and on the back–“That I Have Forever Lost My Right to Bear Arms.”

These people have become so demented by their own obsessions that they have chosen to live in a cancerous alternate universe. But that does not mean that the rest of us should be compelled to settle in next door to them.

Now, I expect that some readers of this post are going to infer that I am, in effect, saying that extramural speech—the expression of controversial and even offensive personal opinions—should not be protected by the principle of academic freedom or the laws guaranteeing free expression.

But that really is NOT my point. My point is that, to use Donald Trump’s now favorite word, there is a HUGE difference between expressing a controversial and even offensive personal opinion and engaging in this kind of deluded, self-indulgent, and vicious persecution of someone who has already been rendered emotionally vulnerable by terrible tragedy.

Nothing that Steven Salaita or Saida Grundy has ever posted has come anywhere close to this level of offensiveness. But this sort of offensiveness is the sort of thing that the mainstream media has for the most part scrupulously ignored. For instance, media reports will note that protesters had gathered outside of some venue at which President Obama was speaking, but they won’t include photos or even verbal descriptions of the blatantly abhorrent things on the signs that those protesters were carrying or that they were all too willing to say to anyone within earshot.

So, no, I am not suggesting that we restrict the freedom of speech of the sort of lunatics who have been persecuting Chris Hurst. I simply want us to begin highlighting much more emphatically—to begin disseminating even more widely than their viral videos—exactly what they are actually saying. And, when there is a consensus that what they are saying is completely unhinged, I would like to suggest that the NRA’s own solution to gun violence should be applied to them: that is, anyone who is so clearly suffering from mental disorders should be denied a gun license.



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