Fictional Truths or Harmless Humor?

Full birds on the wire

Image:  Tomascastelazo /Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s Note: A recent satirical letter in The Chronicle Review provoked a lot of controversy online. Here is one of two perspectives on the letter and the reactions it elicited. You can read the other piece here.

Once upon a time in digital space, there was an author who crafted and published a humorous satirical letter written about a wholly fictional student upon the fake death of her equally fictitious grandmother during a made-up exam week.

When some very real students and professors read this fictional letter, some laughed and some didn't. More than a few seemed to initially read it as a literal letter to one of the author's own students. Most (eventually) understood it as a piece of satire, but still didn't find it funny. All of them did what any reader does with any piece of text — interpreted it through the lens of their own experiences and background and began debating its possible meanings.

As the online discussion ensued, however, the letter itself became more and more divorced from its particular context. It morphed from a humorous text into a symbolic one. Reading the letter as a “fictional truth,” many experienced a bevy of concrete emotions ranging from ire to frustration to mild annoyance, penning hundreds of decidedly nonsatirical tweets, comments, and notes to the author. Some of them accused the author of writing a “student-shaming” piece, abusing her own power as an adjunct professor, and contributing to a toxic campus culture that promotes shaming and otherwise demeaning students. Some said the piece should never have been written nor published. Some expressed aggravation at The Chronicle itself and its previous publishing of “anti-student” content (specifically: this earlier column on a similar topic that also included fictionalized snarky emails to students). Many shared personal stories about their own experiences with death in college and reflected that they, too, had been shamed by professors while in mourning. Some questioned the institution of higher education itself and began using the letter to examine power dynamics within academia.

Unfortunately, many readers also found online avenues to reverse shame the author herself — calling her “an asshole,” a “bitch,” a “narcissist,” a “sociopath,” and “immoral.” As the online response escalated, some began screenshotting and sharing deleted Twitter conversations after the author blocked some of those engaging with her. Commenters on the online article went after not only the author, but each other, with accusations of cruelty and a lack of empathy on one side and a thin-skinned inability to take a joke or understand satire on the other.

In other words, things got very personal and very nasty very quickly. And then they got worse.

By the day’s end — following the snowball effect of a full day of link sharing and social-media discussion centered around the original satirical letter — one of these very real readers wrote a not-at-all funny message to the letter’s very real author, threatening her with violence.

If this is a story about professors, academic culture, or the effects of social media, then it is not one with a happy ending. If it is a parable about the same, then it is perhaps one lacking a positive moral. If it is representative of how educated and otherwise careful readers react to something they find provocative or unsavory, then we should all be more than a little worried.

By the close of last week, the various readings and interpretations of Shannon Reed's short piece of satire had all but congealed around two poles. Readers either:

  • Agreed that the piece had an underlying intent or was reflective of  “student-shaming culture.” These readers often found the piece “cruel” or “mean-spirited” and sometimes charged that the author, as an educator, “should have known better.” They called for The Chronicle to take it down and for the author to apologize for hurting students or to “explain herself.” Under this reading, any piece that “punched down” or attacked students — even fictional ones — should never be written and/or published in a venue devoted to education. Anyone who supported its publication was deemed “complicit in student-shaming culture.”
  • Agreed the letter was satire and found it devoid of any of the larger meanings being assigned to it. Some in this camp found the satire funny; some didn’t. Regardless, they saw it as “just satire” or “harmless humor.” They supported the author’s right to publish it and called for the piece to be put back into its original context as fiction and humor. This camp viewed people who denounced the letter as academics who either had an “ax to grind” against the academy or were indulging in self-promotional virtue signaling to show themselves as “good” or “caring” professors/people. At the far end of this spectrum were calls for people reading it another way to “lighten up” or “get a sense of humor.”

As a writer and a professor, I watched these artificial — and quite simplistic and restrictive — categories develop, and found myself increasingly baffled. I, too, had an emotional reaction. Not to the text itself, but to its various interpretations. I started to ask a series of questions that increasingly troubled me as the day wore on:

Weren’t we — as people specifically trained to read critically, research thoroughly, and gather facts — supposed to know how to distinguish fiction from fact, satire from reality? Weren’t we supposed to engage in mediated and nuanced conversations about controversial subjects? What caused such an outpouring of ire to be directed at a woman who is a known humor writer (with countless bylines at The New Yorker and McSweeney's Internet Tendency) with near-perfect student evaluations (at least those visible on the notoriously cranky Why hadn’t people read her other work and put her Chronicle piece in that context? How had a piece of satirical humor morphed into a very real debate about empathy for students?

I can't really answer any of those questions. Certainly not in a brief essay like this. But what I can do — and what we should all do — is examine some of the issues that this satirical letter and its response might raise for us going forward.

First, one of the most oft-repeated claims against the author and the piece itself was that it lacked empathy toward students. The professor in this satiric letter is not a sympathetic character: What she does is snarky, a little mean, and dismissive. She is also a clear caricature and as such is meant to be seen as exaggerated and ridiculous (Victorian period of mourning anyone?). This character really is all the things people accused her (and, sadly, the author herself) of being.

Yet the wholly fictional student in this letter is not much better — having killed off two of her grandparents in the same six-week period to avoid exams. Yet this imaginary student sparked calls for real-life professors to show actual students more empathy. And while everyone can agree that actual students deserve our respect and trust, the collective cry for more empathy still made me more than a little uncomfortable.

And at least on this, I’m not alone. Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has argued that empathy itself may be problematic. Empathy focuses on individuals and creates emotional responses — not only sadness and compassion, but anger. Empathy can help to foster angry backlashes (or, worse yet, revenge or retribution) against whomever is seen as causing harm to the object of our empathy (in this case, the author of the satire). Reading through all the online comments and responses — many of which recount devastating personal stories of losing a loved one and being shamed by their professor — it's hard not to react emotionally and blame “the professoriate” and “The Chronicle” for causing real harm.

Yet the collective empathy here seemed to only flow in one direction — toward the students. Little was left over for the author herself (at least until she was threatened) or for beleaguered instructors who might be dealing with students who do actually lie to avoid deadlines. For what it’s worth, in my youth, I killed my own grandmother on at least five occasions. And at least 10 people messaged me during the writing of this essay to admit the same.

In today’s academic environment — one in which student evaluations are often used to decide on contract renewal or tenure cases — adjunct or nontenured instructors (including Reed herself) often walk a tightrope in dealing with students. Where was the empathy for those instructors, many of whom might also be coping with the lack of authority and the routine microaggressions that come with being nonwhite and/or female in a college classroom?

Of course, the enjoinder to have more compassion for our students is a good one. But it is also an easy platform to agree with — especially publicly in places like Twitter. No one commenting on either side of this divide was against showing students more respect and trust and compassion. And that makes sense. What concerns me is how empathy was turned into a sort of rhetorical weapon and used to reverse-shame the author herself.

Then again, why should academics be above the effects of social media, and its capacity to encourage people to engage in groupthink? Recent social-scientific analyses and popular hot takes have explored how people read and interpret online texts and comments, how often we rely on social media to construe meanings or interpret facts, and how often we double-down on our own beliefs or impressions even in the face of contradictory evidence. At least part of that tendency has to do with the power of online social networks.

Indeed, much was made of the power dynamic reflected in Reed’s satirical letter — pitting a powerful professor against a powerless student. Many pointed out that a powerful media outlet backed the publication of this letter. Yet much less was made of the fact that Shit Academics Say  — an influential Twitter account with nearly 250K followers — linked to the original piece with the tag “student shaming 101: a Twitter play in four acts.” That doesn't leave much room for wondering how SAS thinks the letter should have been read, and primed many readers' interpretation of the piece. At the very least that Tweet made it a lot harder to read Reed’s piece “objectively.”

Ph.D.s have a handy toolkit for independent textual analysis, yet none of us “think” alone. The initial responses to Reed's piece influenced subsequent readings and interpretations. All meaning, after all, is social. As Steven Sloman, a professor of cognitive, linguistic and psychological sciences at Brown University, suggests: “Most thinking involves collaborating with other people. That’s why scientists have lab meetings, why doctors consult with specialists, and why it’s important to have someone to talk to when you’re confused or upset. Individuals can’t justify their beliefs, but groups are great at justifying things (though not necessarily justifications that would pass muster with a philosopher). A little social support can generate a lot of confidence.”

As an anthropologist, I know that language and culture matter. We learn how and what to think in social groups. Online, those groups are larger and more anonymous and leave less room for nuance and context. The reaction to Reed's letter was primed from the start when it was linked to by several accounts (some verified), few favorable. When we see that something is supposedly “shaming” — before we even click on the text to read it — how easy is it for most of us to read it differently?

Social media plays a huge part in shaping how we react to things and what we can think about them. As Damon Linker argues in a recent essay, “Twitter is Destroying America,” Twitter — and maybe all social media — is akin to a high-school cafeteria, everyone vying for attention, popularity, and a voice. He writes, “As anyone who makes it out of high school alive knows very well, the cafeteria is not a psychically, emotionally, or intellectually healthy place to be. And neither is Twitter.” By the end of last week, I'm sure Reed agreed.

Unfortunately, as a satirist and humor writer, she is not alone in her experience. Nor is this necessarily a “new” problem. Comedians, humor writers, and satirists have been on the receiving end of negative reactions to their “jokes” for a long time. Mike Birbiglia bookends his new Netflix special, Thank God for Jokes, by talking about the Charlie Hebdo attack and its effect on him as a humor writer. As Birbiglia points out, internet culture has allowed people to take humor out of its original context and share it instantly, intensifying negative backlash to what began as a “joke.”

Tim Kreider, a former political cartoonist, argues that satirists should not be personally attacked for drawing attention to real problems in humorous ways. There is a difference between a writer and the character she creates (a distinction that often dropped out of conversations about Reed’s piece). Kreider writes: “I hold with the unfashionable notion that artists should be allowed to do whatever they want: that Lionel Shriver should be allowed to write about Latinos, that Dana Schutz should be allowed to paint Emmett Till, and that Kathy Griffin should be allowed to accessorize with the president's head.” Ultimately, Kreider argues that fictional abuses are better than actual ones, writing that “successfully sublimating its aggression” in humor and satire is actually the sign of a healthy society, not a sick one.

Maybe the sign of sickness, then, is in taking that humor literally and seriously as an attack — one that needs to be defended against. Or, worse yet, one that ends in calls for the policing of content and/or its destruction. In a recent Guardian piece that asks if satire is dead, satirist Armando Iannucci argues that: “I’ve found this very worrying, the idea that if anyone says anything that might offend anyone, they mustn’t be given a platform. It’s like when a complaint is made about a satire show, the reply goes out immediately: ‘The intention was never to offend.’ The intention was to offend. If it hadn’t offended, it wouldn’t be funny. If we have beliefs, religious or political, and they’re not strong enough to stand up to a joke, then they can’t be that good.”

In the case of Reed’s satirical letter — and I’m paraphrasing former editor Jon Kay writing on “the tyranny of Twitter” — the online response to Reed's attempt at humor ended with a crowdsourcing of academic moral judgment. We live in an age of conspiracy theories, outrage against the “corrupt media,” and concern over “fake news.” Nothing that happened last week in the comments section of The Chronicle or on Twitter should have surprised me, and that's exactly what worries me the most.

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