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The Revealing Weirdness That Is Facebook

Occupy Wall Street protest, by David Shankbone.

Sometimes the most innocent of comments can activate the wildest responses on Facebook. Yesterday one of my friends, a fellow traveler in academia, posted a harmless, humorous comment about a student of his who had sent the “best excuse ever” for missing class: s/he was in jail in New York after being arrested at the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Now, there are many ways of responding. A couple of people voted in favor of this student’s activism. But one wily and experienced fellow college teacher posted a cagey comment about how his excuse of being at a previous era’s protest had fallen on deaf ears all those many years ago. He pointedly didn’t say whether he’d actually been there or not. It was entirely possible to question a) whether this is indeed a good excuse for missing class, b) what such a student’s motivations might be for heading into protest—care about the issues or general rabblerousing, or c) whether or not the student was actually at the protest in New York or just faking an excuse. Us wily and experienced teacher types have seen it all.

But there was a thread of discussion that became disturbing. My friend who originally posted said they kept the hate up all evening. It eventually became so disturbing that he sent a note of apology and took the whole thread down. So there’s a good bit of it I haven’t seen. What I did see was four posts that took a dive away from known reality so far as to give me chills.

The first of these responders, someone I happen to also know slightly, noted that she wondered what would happen if this student spent as much time and energy on work as opposed to protests. She asserted that if so the student would have a good work life. I was shocked and horrified, as this was a person who once aspired to graduate work and qualifications for college teaching. Fortunately, she didn’t go that route, as I see from this one comment that she would be making a lot of negative and false assumptions about students under her purview.

There quickly followed three more nasty remarks by people I don’t know and never heard of. One of them responded sarcastically that this student “must be Greek,” showing at least a sense of humor if not particular knowledge of the dire economic situation in Greece. The other two posted long diatribes against these “whiny” people—one made nasty assumptions about someone able to afford to fly to New York and stay in an expensive city while protesting bad economics; the other claimed that these people don’t know what work is, have never contributed to their country, and live with their parents as free-loaders.

My jaw dropped. I posted two short comments—one about my support for the practice of protests and the association between a society where no one can afford to protest and a state of slavery, and the other about the fact that these folks were jumping to huge conclusions about someone they don’t know anything about.

I’m sorry I missed the rest of the thread, even though I surmise from my friend’s apology to me that they probably dragged me over the coals. I don’t care. Someone has to honestly point out that these people are reacting to something entirely off-camera. My friend never told us more than that he had a student who claimed to be at the Occupy Wall Street protest.

He did not tell us (and probably doesn’t know himself at this point) whether that student has a job, works hard at his or her job, was properly rewarded for working hard or worked hard for nothing, flew to New York or hitched a ride with someone else, stayed in a hotel or camped on some cockroach crawly floor in some cheapo Brooklyn apartment of a friend, has a lot of money or made economic sacrifices to go, knows what work is (i.e., has worked in whatever jobs this person would define as real work), is a veteran of the Iraq war or not, has contributed to a family’s failing income and lives at home, lives independently alone or with roommates… or anything else about this person.

It is truly astounding that people would read all that into someone’s mere presence at a protest. They unfolded one factoid into an array of negative (and probably false) stereotypes. It is the kind of over-generalized thinking promoted by the right-wing media and websites. It is a pre-programmed response not based on reality at all.

I can’t speak for the student that my friend mentioned on Facebook, and I can’t speak for all the protestors, or even for every plank of their cause. What I can say is that the small handful of people I am acquainted with who have participated in the Occupy Wall Street protests are some of the smartest, hardest-working former students I’ve ever had, students who pulled themselves up by applying to and getting in and working like mad at superior graduate schools in New York City. They are the former students who were ideal in both their work ethics and their concern for social justice. They know exactly what work is, whether it is for a wage or for the benefit of art or the understanding of other people. They excelled in every way in school and didn’t let their modest beginnings thwart them. They contribute their brilliance and their labor to our country every day, and they are fighting to make sure that their contributions to this country won’t stop at minimum-wage mindless jobs at McDonalds.

But as my mother used to say, “Information cannot argue with a closed mind.” It is hard to know what to do when so many minds are so slammed shut. Knock, knock, we say. But we don’t even get a “Who’s there?” Just violent, fearful, misplaced sputtering.

4 responses »

  1. I learned about the weirdness of FB when my own sister refused to friend me and later blocked me. Digital communication is a haven for passive-aggressives.

  2. For me, the shocking thing about Facebook is that some of my friends have turned out to be, to put it charitably, only semi-literate, but such friends committing atrocities against grammar have not been prone to venting any political opinions. I do have at least one conservative friend on the site, which seems shocking only because he is under 35.

    As for whether or not participating in a protest is a valid excuse from not meeting one’s educational responsibilities, I think not—which is not to say that participating in the protest isn’t the morally superior thing to do. Not long ago, I lived in New York, and I am sorry not to be getting tear-gassed or arrested for asserting the radical notions of common sense that is behind most of Occupy Wall Street’s concerns. But somehow I feel compelled to stay here to teach my students and not get fired. Moral cowardice?

    The idea that protesters are lazy and Wall Street professionals who raped the economy for billions of dollars and then begged the government for a rescue involving billions in tax dollars, just to give themselves obscenely-sized bonuses from said tax dollars WORK for a living, makes me wonder if hard work can possibly be moral.

    The recent collective statement of the Occupy Wall Street group has a dignity that reminds me of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution’s preamble.

    The media dismissal of Occupy Wall Street mostly emphasized the lack of the protest’s focus. By comparison, the Tea Party never got close to being this cogent (taxes = evil, Obama = Hitler, health care = socialism), and they have had two years, not three weeks. The liberal bias of the liberal media for some reason didn’t dismiss the Tea Party, whereas this revolution suggesting that the pursuit of happiness should at least be possible has been ignored and dismissed—but hopefully the message, now committed to the public record, will seem so self-evident and sensible that even the media and the politicians will take note that America is reaching a civilized consensus without them.

    • All interesting points.

      I have a number of friends and relatives on Facebook who aren’t of the same political or even religious persuasion as I am. I guess I’m used to that, having grown up in Tennessee. And I don’t object to that. Fortunately for me, my friends and relatives at least don’t seem to be hate-mongers, even if they do thank Jesus more than I might on any given day. I would draw the line at a certain kind of completely irrational hate, and I have done so in real life before when I showed to the door a “friend” of mine who started saying outrageous things about a gay couple of my friends who’d made the decision to have a child. My Facebook friend who drew the original craziness here told me that he un-friended a couple of people over it. That’s one thing about Facebook–it draws people we don’t really know well.

      But I guess one of my biggest questions is what does it mean for people to separate so consciously and completely from those who are different? I don’t want to live in a closed world any more than I appreciate “them” living in a closed world.

      And thanks for further outlining the influence of the NON-liberal media and the comparison to the Tea Party. I know that the first time I saw them interviewing a Tea Party pundit, I was agog that they were giving that much credence to a mad-person.


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