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Should We Pay Less Social Media Attention to Violence? Lessons from WWII and Fu-Go

September 10, 2015 Leave a comment

On September 11th, 2001, I turned the television off. I knew what was happening was historic. But I knew my family in New York City were fine. Initial details were sketchy, and lots of misinformation was being reported. I figured, why listen to the blow-by-blow—I’ll get the real story later, right? Plus I didn’t see any point in wallowing in tragedy. So I did the only sensible thing I could think of—I got back to work. I had a paper deadline for the CHI conference coming up.

If part of the point of terrorism is to draw the public’s attention, what if we all simply refused to listen? Or if the media refused to publish the story? Of course that’s a silly suggestion. People want to know. In fact, some evolutionary biologists argue that we are hard-wired to be fascinated by danger—our fascination keeps us safe. Is turning news about violent attacks off either possible or desirable?

I was struck again by this idea when I listened to the Radio Lab podcast on the Fu-Go project. During World War II, Japan sent thousands of balloons carrying bombs to the US. The intent was to terrorize the American public. To prevent that outcome, the US government suppressed stories about the bombs. No one was told about them, and the public wasn’t terrorized at all. And that mostly worked out perfectly—with one exception. A group of children out on a church picnic found one, and all gathered around to see what it was—with disastrous consequences. All the other bombs exploded harmlessly. (Though there’s a chance that some are still out there, in remote places in the Pacific Northwest. One was found in 2014.)

The tradeoffs here are headache inducing. By suppressing freedom of speech and freedom of the press, the US government prevented national panic. And caused the deaths of six people.

I would never condone government suppression of free speech. And if bombs were floating around my area, I’d definitely want to know. But I do wonder if sharing stories about such acts is causing part of the problem. What if we all stopped forwarding the link about that crazy shooter? Would that make the next person less likely to shoot people for attention? What if we all just turned this kind of news off?

I don’t think it’s either possible or desirable to do that on a large scale. But maybe, just as an experiment, we could all try not posting/forwarding/retweeting stories that draw attention to someone who did something heinous in order to get attention.

Kudos to Radio Lab for a thought provoking (though depressing) podcast.

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The Irony of the Controversy Over Duke’s Freshman Reading, “Fun Home”

September 4, 2015 1 comment

There are people in the world that do not love their fellow human beings—and I hate people like that!” — Tom Lehrer

I confess that I was a little late doing my freshman reading. Before freshman year of college, I made a deliberate decision not to read the optional summer reading we were suggested. My teenage self reasoned: Only a total tool would do the optional summer reading. I’m too cool for that.

Twenty-nine years later, as my 25th college reunion was approaching, I thought: Why was I such a dolt as a teen? Some nice people put a lot of effort into suggesting books for me. Ones that would open my horizons to different approaches to knowledge. So I went back and read one of the books—Lucy by Donald Johanson. It was great (though out of date by the time I read it). I’m still trying to find out what the other assigned books were.

This month, a number of incoming students at Duke University are busy not doing their freshman reading as well—but for another reason. They are offended by it. Among other books, the university assigned Allison Bechdel’s Fun Home, a coming-of-age memoir that deals with the author coming to terms with her identity as a lesbian. The book also contains explicit sexual content.

In the wake of student protests about the book, a number of members of my social network posted indignant messages, outraged that the Duke students were offended. One went as far as to suggest that those students’ admission to Duke should be rescinded. Really?

I served on Georgia Tech’s committee to pick the freshman reading last year, and we found it a challenging task. The freshman reading is not just any reading—it has a special status. It says to people “This is the kind of place you are coming to.” With that in mind, I argued against a reading that I thought was too nerdy. Imagine someone who had mixed feelings about coming to a tech school, thinking “I’m not part of the pocket protector set… will I fit in?” Now imagine them opening their uber-nerdy pre-frosh reading and banging their head on the table, “What have I done? What kind of a place am I going to?” Fear of nerdiness can particularly be an issue for young women, and it’s part of why we don’t have more women in computer science and other fields. If you want to teach that same reading in a literature class, that’s great—go for it. But the freshman reading has a special status. Students should absolutely be required to read things in college that make them feel uncomfortable—but not for the freshman reading.

I really feel for the Duke students who got their copy of Fun Home and were distraught. Duke freshman Brian Grasso’s article in the Washington Post is quite eloquent about it. Our students at Georgia Tech are politically diverse, and I have come to love that diversity. Each fall I teach an ethics class, “Computers, Society, and Professionalism.” The diversity of views is an asset—I count on it to get really thought-provoking conversations started. I ask my students to keep an open mind and really listen to views different from their own, and I try to do that myself.

The irony of this entire incident borders on absurdity. Some people are decrying the controversy over Fun Home in the name of diversity and acceptance of people who are different from you. But aren’t conservative Christians part of that diversity?

It’s easy to turn the tables and imagine a book about someone coming to terms with their identity as a born-again Christian. Would you assign that as pre-freshman reading? Of course not. Would you assign it in other classes like theology or literature? Of course. And the same goes for Fun Home.

If anyone remembers what the freshman reading for the incoming Harvard class of 1987 was, send me a message—I’m a bit behind finishing it.

Categories: academia
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