Let’s get this right off the bat: this post is about one particular aspect of the aftermath of the Usdan flyer controversy.
You might have heard of it by now, or maybe even seen it. Yesterday, NBC Connecticut vans were spotted on campus grounds, and we later got word that reporters were trying to squeeze soundbites out of Wes students. Later that night, they ran a news story about the Usdan flyer incident. It was short, it was a little strange, and most disturbingly, it was considerably misleading. Then came the newest update: Rajan Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, is denouncing Wesleyan from across the country and calling on the university to apologize for the incident.
There has been much heated debate behind the scenes here in the cyberspace office of Wesleying ever since last Friday’s incident. We as a self-accountable collective of bloggers had to confront very difficult questions: what is our role in the student body? What are our duties? How far can we go with moderation and censorship? How do we balance between protection and preservation of the discussion? Most of these questions went unanswered, simply because they are so grey and difficult.
But when the NBC Connecticut story ran last night, it was pretty clear what needed to be done. Bad reporting on what happened here at Wes needs to be covered, and the viewing lens of the story has to re-calibrated for the benefit of the community. This is precisely what this post will try to do. Now, I just want to make clear that this is an insanely difficult and sensitive thing to write about. And I know I’m probably going to get slammed in the face one way or another for doing something or for not doing another thing or whatever, but fuck it—I’m doing it. This is something of a long piece, so hit me up after the jump.
Oh, and one more thing: if you’re on the NBC Connecticut staff, hello! This is for you. Really.
Before I get to the thing I want to cover, however, I want to set forth a few… I suppose I will call them premises.
- First: I’m going to assume that anybody reading this knows the objective facts of the matter. But to go over the most important bits: (1) the flyer itself was meant to be a joke (however ill-advised) and there was no malicious intent whatsoever. (2) Usdan and Shakti, the organization behind the event during which this incident took place, have nothing to do with this. (3) The student who created the flyer has already made a very public apology and has taken full responsibility for the incident.
- Second: The issue here is not one about overt racism. It is understood that the concern here is not hostile or aggressive discriminatory targeting. Rather, the issue here is about implicit/subversive racism. It pertains to the way we speak, the way we joke, and the way we subconsciously get pressed into particular modes of thinking that reduces and neuters the important conversations that we should be having. See Jezebel’s Hipster Racism, or refer to the problems of using ironic humor as a medium for meaningful discourse in general. To be perfectly clear: implicit/subversive racism is not in any way a “better” form of racism. It’s just different, and it requires a different form of approach and understanding. (A relevant Argus op-ed by Luz Rivera ’13 can be found here).
- Third: To clarify, the thing that is bothersome is not this one particular incident—rather, it is the larger social structure/environment/whatever that operates on such an abstract and intangible level that we find it so difficult to articulate the precise nature of the problem in words. This is the very thing that we should be focusing upon, on top of a few other larger conceptual problems that seem to inhibit connection and discourse on this campus.
Right. Anyway. So, when I find out this morning that NBC Connecticut ran a short story about the flyer incident last night, I felt that there are three things in particular that I would like to address here on this blog:
- The entire story by NBC was extremely superficial, reductive, and completely fails to address how the entire issue is a lot more nuanced than mere student outrage over an offensive flyer. The story’s fixation on just the incident—its inability to connect it to the larger narrative at play—absolutely kills any potential for an intelligent conversation to be had about the environment that gave rise to this issue. There are so many places that this conversation can go—we could, for example, talk about race relations and subtle racism, or perhaps about political correctness and all its awkwardness and difficulties (I’m thinking about Sylvie Stein ’12’s recent Argus op-ed), or even about how we may joke differently under different contexts. But as it stands, with the way NBC Connecticut has so awkwardly brought it up to national scrutiny (assuming it got up that high), the entire issue is presented…. almost as a caricature, one of “those things that happen” in a liberal arts college. In other words, you’ve provided a distorted version of the story for external spectators to misunderstand and further mangle. Thanks a lot.
- Also, one of the major sources of information for the article—which considerably changed the tone and direction of the article, albeit implicitly—was an anonymous comment that was posted on the original post reporting on the flyer. What’s up with that? The emphasis on this one comment and lack of emphasis on the full contour of the 80+ comments that showed up on that post reveals a substantial dearth of adequate treatment of the story.
- There was another NBC Connecticut article reporting that a Hindu Leader, one Rajan Zed of the Universal Society of Hinduism, from “across the country has heard about this and demanded an apology from the university.” The leader’s argument was captured by the article as follows: “It was very insensitive to the students and others who celebrated this popular Hindu festival of colors and it was belittling the entire community… We are also colored you know, most of us are, and so it is very offensive, you are banning a whole class from entering the main center on campus.” A couple of things. First of all, I don’t think it’s going too far if I say that said leader has obviously misread/misinterpret/misunderstood the nature and shape of the problem as it played out here. No “class” of people were “banned” from entering the campus. It’s not too much to assume that Zed was operating on information about things that simply did not happen. I can’t blame him, though—the way the NBC article presented things, how he ran with it is not altogether surprising. But Zed’s statement indicates another problem coming out of the article: it allows for inappropriate and inaccurate appropriations of the problem that can only end up impeding any real headway on the actual issue. Moving on, I just want to put it out there that the university should be separated from the event which should be separated from the organizers which should be separated from the student who put up the flyer. Just sayin’.
tl;dr – Dear NBC Connecticut, your presentation of the story was superficial and reductive. There are so many details and layers that you completely missed, and what you folks came up with is, to a large extent, a distorted narrative. The conditions you have now set up has the potential of being deeply detrimental to any real awareness, confrontation, or conversation about the true nature of the problem, simply because attention is being drawn to either the wrong places or to things that simply did not happen. I don’t really know what to say to you folks, other than, I suppose: pick up your game, because you’re not helping. I’m not going to say that you’re skirting the line of being sensationalist about the whole thing… but by picking the story up in the simple way you did, you folks got pretty damn close to something that’s far worse.
There is a problem here; in fact, I think there are many layers of problems that were packed into what happened last Friday, as well as its aftermath. Furthermore, these problems are tricky, nuanced, and super-sensitive, subject to infinite variations of misinterpretations and misunderstandings. We have to work to ensure that our vision of those problems are not distorted, reduced, or caricatured—they are real, they are rich, and they are important, far too important for careless misrepresentation.
Also, I hear our good old friend Mytheos Holt ’10, who is now working at The Blaze magazine, is writing about this issue. Your move, Mr. Holt. Try not to fuck the details it up.
Also, a note for commenters: if you’re going to say something, please try your damnest best to be productive and hold yourself accountable to your words. Be thoughtful, conscious, and stay the heck away from vitriol and making personal attacks. Don’t be too hasty; try to be clear in what is being said before you react and reflect upon it. And if possible, attach your real name to your comment.
Having stated all this clearly at this point of the post, we reserve every right to remove any comment we deem inappropriate, unhelpful, or hurtful. I know the Internet is usually infested with trolls and the depraved. Let’s try for once to aspire to something a little better.
While I appreciate this article, and I do think news sources should be questioned and scrutinized for their distorting of the issues, I don’t think the gravity of what happened here should get lost in the heat of criticizing its representation. You’re right to say that what happened is layered and complex–of course it is. But I think it’s an important lesson for all of us that when we write or post something that we perceive to be humorous or ironic, it can lead to misinterpretation as absurd as NBC’s coverage. Yes, we can spend time being critical of NBC. We can spend time pointing fingers at those who started this and those who have tried to distill it into something, whether that be “truth” or otherwise. But NBC latched onto an interpretation at the most basic level of that sign–yes, without context, perhaps, without enough sources–but they latched onto the connotation and the narrative of discrimination that was also present for those who read those signs, context, and potentially-intended-humor aside, on that day. News sources will always be subjective. Our reactions will always be subjective. Perhaps it’s worth reminding ourselves that this horribly reductive broadcast and reaction was only possible the moment a sign was posted alluding to a certain history, no matter how many layers of humor, irony, or otherwise were intended for it to be read with.
And just to qualify this, I really don’t mean to attack the author of the article or whomever was involved in the hanging of the posters. Just trying to make sense of how we are to make sense of this as a community, and what if anything we could/should learn from it.
You realize you just anonymously called someone out who was strong/brave enough to post their name with their comment. If you’re going to hate on non-anonymous posters at least give some sort of context of who you are (and maybe leave out words like “gee” and “typical”)..
Also, your comment makes no sense.
Well done – definitely needed to be said.
Just a note, the Argus articles mentioned above are not Wespeaks but edited opinion articles.
Very good piece. This whole thing has gotten way out of hand, and I wish we could have maintained some perspective on the gravity of the situation from the start, but I have nothing truly constructive to say about that so I won’t try. I think you covered the important stuff.
I also wish people would stop reposting that Jezebel article as if it were the ultimate guide to analyzing these situations. It’s a really terrible piece.
I agree- that Jezebel piece was not the best.
Thank you for this, sir.
Agreed, thank you. The flyer was dumb and demonstrates a lot of issues that exist, but NBC covering it, especially the way that they did was absolutely ridiculous. I’m a student of color and although I thought the poster was insensitive, it is beyond stupid that NBC covered it. Thanks for this! And for being so great at following and reporting on the continued discussion – that is what is most helpful.
A modest suggestion from a Wesalum who now happens to run a newsroom: Simply telling NBC Connecticut “you’re not helping” is also not helpful.
For starters, it’s not NBC Connecticut’s job to help the Wesleyan community. Their job is to tell the story of what happened.
Secondly, if you want NBC Connecticut to do something specific as a follow-up, make a very clear request. If there are “details and layers” that should have been included in its reporting, then be explicit about what those details are. If NBC Connecticut’s reporting missed the “true nature of the problem,” then explain to them in clear, precise terms what the true nature of the problem is.
After reading this post, I still have no idea what the true nature of the problem is, aside from it being a “nuanced” problem that’s “subject to infinite variations of misinterpretations.” I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but any problem that’s that vague is precisely “one of those things” that happens at liberal arts colleges.
You just wrote 1590 words complaining about NBC Connecticut’s reporting, then wrapped it up by saying “I don’t really know what to say to you folks.” Yes, that much is clear. Figure out what you want to say, and try again.
(As for the story being superficial and reductive… it was 86 seconds long. Of course it’s reductive. The challenge on any story of that length is figuring out how to be reductive while doing the best possible service to the facts at hand. Could this story have done better service to those facts? Probably. But you won’t get anyone at NBC Connecticut to take you seriously until you point out how.)
Hey man, thanks for your input. I’m going to make three broad points, and I’m back to my paper.
1. So, I personally operate on the assumption that a story like this warrants a presentation and analysis that’s longer than 86 seconds long on video and 301 words as an article. Because if you’re going to stick to a bite-size format for something like this, you’re going to end up misrepresenting the depth and stakes of the story and you’re going to end up hurting the community in a way that’s really unnecessary. And by this I mean drawing attention to the wrong issue or a distortion of the actual issue, allowing external spectators to misunderstand the issue and step in to confuse the issue with them bringing up how they feel about the issue which really isn’t the issue at hand.
Now, I completely understand if you’re going to float the argument that the nightly news format is limited, that it’s forced to reduce stories into bite-sized pieces, and that really there’s nothing they can do about it. They have to report news one way or another, and so they are structurally compelled to “reduce.” I’ve heard this argument before, and yes, I understand. But bite-sized reporting on issues as complex and delicate and historically-packed like race relations really is not going to cut it. What’s my practical suggestion? Either engage this story as an extended report – a special, even – or just don’t do it at all. Certainly don’t cough out a small piece that misses all the big important normative points, and then just leave it there. (Hell, NBC Connecticut could even do follow-ups. Follow-ups would help a lot). Sure, there’s probably some middle way, some manner in which a particularly talented journalist can weave enough nuance and sophistication into 300+ words. But such journalists are rare.
2. Another major issue that I had with the article is not simply that it was reductive, it was also distortive – it confused the issue with what little words it had in its disposal. I would have appreciated it if they spent more time covering the story: getting a wider range of opinions, gauging the precise spread of student response (which was considerably varied, mind you), and contextualizing the incident with the full range of responses that came after. As it stands, the article used one anonymous post on the comments section – highly unaccountable as it is, with a low probability but every possibility of being a troll comment (who knows?) – which in and of itself did not represent the full swathe of student opinion. What’s my practical suggestion? Do more than just stand in front of one building in one spot and interview what few people passed by. Talk to various professors. Find student publications. Call me. Call Zach. Call A-Batte. Hell, talk to somebody who could get you to know more.
3. When I first started writing this post, I did not seriously intend to get NBC Connecticut to read this. (I suppose they are busy people covering important, important things, far more important than this) I wrote this post for the benefit of my community. For more than a few days now I have felt that there has been this… unease with the way last Friday’s incident played itself out. It’s a vulnerability, and it’s a fear of the entire thing being reduced to some measure of absurdity. And when the NBC vans pulled in, that absurdity was emphasized in the collective student mind infinitely.
I have seen controversies like this play out before on this campus. It almost always follows a particular pattern: outrage, emotional aftermath, degradation into absurdity and nihilism, and finally, a slow descent into nobody caring any more – which leaves the people who were directly affected hanging, and a bitter taste in all our mouths. (And so we bitch again and again when we hear this school being touted as “Diversity University” or a liberal utopia, etc. etc.)
I suppose I didn’t want to see that happen. My practical solution was to write this post.
Also, for the record, I wrote the post above in 30 minutes. That’s a personal best. Sorry, had to add that in.
But again, Mr. Weiss, thanks for your input.
tl;dr – practical suggestions:
– When reporting on sensitive and historically-packed cases like these, either do an extended and serious report, or don’t do one at all. But if you’re going to stick to your bite-sized formats, at least have the decency to run follow up stories.
– Get better at reporting. I don’t know how else to say it.
– Talk to us. Talk to somebody who knows something, somebody who can help you find out what is really going on.
Oh! I also forgot. What’s the real nature of the problem? To quote myself, if I may do so:
“Second: The issue here is not one about overt racism. It is understood that the concern here is not hostile or aggressive discriminatory targeting. Rather, the issue here is about implicit/subversive racism. It pertains to the way we speak, the way we joke, and the way we subconsciously get pressed into particular modes of thinking that reduces and neuters the important conversations that we should be having. See Jezebel’s Hipster Racism, or refer to the problems of using ironic humor as a medium for meaningful discourse in general. To be perfectly clear: implicit/subversive racism is not in any way a “better” form of racism. It’s just different, and it requires a different form of approach and understanding.”
Also, completely glossed over the part of you talking about follow-ups. And I just realized the gravity of your sentence here: “it’s not NBC Connecticut’s job to help the Wesleyan community. Their job is to tell the story of what happened.” There’s a lot packed into your first sentence there, and it’s one that I sort of disagree with, but I feel damn strongly about the idea that NBC Connecticut should at least try not to screw things up worse. The truth is supposed to be something constructive, man. And they didn’t even get that – all they got was a small sliver, which ended up not being the important one at the end of the day.
But that’s my opinion. And sorry for being so hostile, and wordy. I’m sucking at this paper I’m writing.
One bit of perspective to keep in mind: There’s a very good reason to fear this story will fall into absurdity.
This is a story that started with a sign that was supposed to keep people covered in bright powder from messing up the furniture. Yet somehow it devolved into a deep, nuanced discussion about the history of race relations.
So yes, it’s absurd on a few levels. Please keep the furniture clean for reunion weekend. :-)
Appreciate this perspective, very well said.
This was really thoughtful and well written. Thanks for being so clear.
yup, at least a few people have
This is finally a sensible take on the whole issue. Thank you.
Has anybody taken it upon themselves to bring this post to NBC Connecticut’s attention?
I wrote a letter to NBC connecticut and attached the link to this article. If anyone else is interested here is the link: http://www.nbcconnecticut.com/contact-us/
Well put. Hating one person who made a mistake is no way to solve the hate of decades (i.e., racism).
Finally, some sound journalism amongst the absurdities. Thank you for this, it’s great.
Thanks for writing this.
well said. thank you.
Zed’s commentary makes about as much sense as the Chewbacca defense.
Aye aye! Glad you wrote this. I’m a student of color and was personally not offended. That being said, I understand that other people were. When it comes right down to it, we all just need to respect each other. And that includes the need to respect people who make mistakes. We all make mistakes. Personally, I love hip hop music. If I’m in public singing a song under my breath, somebody could hear some lyric from a song and thing I’m a terrible person. But it would just be me not being totally aware. All this divisiveness just makes us look silly. Nobody is even arguing that the sign should have stayed up. I think we all agree it was not the best decision, parties have apologized, and we can all relax and destroy our finals now. Or 1/4 of us can peace out of Wesleyan on a good note!