A young American was returned to U.S. soil last week after having been brutalized by the North Korean regime (he later died), an important story for many political reasons. But the story that has dominated the news in recent days has been about a professor who took to social media to describe the dead young man as “typical of the mindset of a lot of the young, white, rich, clueless males who come into my classes” and who rape and assault women on campus.
Professor Katherine Dettwyler of the University of Delaware asked in a now-deleted Facebook post, “Is it wrong of me to think that Otto Warmbier got exactly what he deserved? I see him crying at his sentencing hearing and think, ‘What did you expect?’” She had a lot more to say about his parents and other (white, male) students. Yes, she has a right publicly to question another person’s judgment since she’s lucky enough to live in a civil society that still (generally) preserves freedom of speech. And she’s not the only one who has wondered aloud about the wisdom of some of Warmbier’s choices.
The U.S. State Department is clear that North Korea is a land of “harsh penalties for actions that would not be considered crimes in the United States” and a place Americans should think twice about before visiting. Warmbier’s case played out like a scene from George Orwell’s 1984: Warmbier visited North Korea in 2015 and while there tried to take down a propaganda sign. He was arrested, attended something vaguely resembling a “trial,” and was sentenced to fifteen years of hard labor. Last week, he was flown to Cincinnati, Ohio, in an unresponsive state. He died days later.
In such a tragic case, questions about Warmbier’s judgment could give way to respectful mourning for his premature death at the hands of a brutal, authoritarian regime. Alas, Professor Dettwyler could not resist taking a few cheap shots. Her employer, the university, reacting to the swift public backlash about the remarks, quickly ended Dettwyler’s employment (she was not a tenured professor, and the case is likely to have turned out differently if she had been). The university noted that her actions went against the institution’s efforts to create an “inclusive and supportive atmosphere characterized by respect and civility.”
But Dettwyler’s case highlights a paradox that exists on a growing number of university campuses today. Our hyper-progressive college campuses fiercely protect sacred, no-offense “safe” spaces, which are often enforced by student mobs when challenged. But this safe space culture is a mockery of civility, transforming the idea of treating one’s fellow students and teachers with respect into an obsession with the inner tranquility of protected groups. It upends the notion that college campuses are a place where challenging opinions should be voiced with respect into a belief that certain arguments are so challenging that voicing them is an act of assault.
But here is the paradox: the safe-space culture co-exists with a social media universe that is vicious, vile, and unrestrained—a jungle of shameless insults. In our faceless online culture, anyone can be tarred and feathered by an army of anonymous trolls wielding keyboards. On the surface, the same students who enforce the safe space culture dislike the vitriolic online public square. In a recent piece in The Nation, Jonathan Taplin argues that young left-leaning American students are afraid to post their views online for fear of the right-wing online lynch mob. He quotes an Evergreen State College student’s reaction to one of her professors going online and speaking out against a college-sponsored Day of Absence where white students, faculty, and staff were strongly encouraged to not be on campus:
“Online vigilantes from 4chan, Reddit, and other forums swarmed to unearth Evergreen students’ contact information. They have harassed us with hundreds of phone calls, anonymous texts and terrifyingly specific threats of violence that show they know where we live and work.”
What are students and teachers to do in a public arena of frozen speech and an online arena of hostile speech? They are reduced to online shaming—and healthy debate all but disappears. In their forthcoming book, Shame Nation, authors Sue Scheff and Melissa Schorr provide a detailed (and sometimes horrifying) look at recent shame-inducing cases that have rocked news pages and Twitter feeds:
Shaming is now the weapon of choice everywhere we look. We see it in arrogant bodybuilders mocking out-of-shape gym members. Middle school students creating fake Facebook pages to trash their teacher or principal. Thousands of “tough-love” moms and dads filming YouTube videos harshly scolding—or even shearing their children’s hair on camera in a last-ditch attempt at discipline. Websites like Yelp and Pissed Consumer that allow angry patrons to publicly blast a small business owner, fairly or not.
Shame has always had a place in societies, serving to discourage certain vices and types of behaviors while encouraging others. Shame—and the act of shaming—is not the central problem. What has grown in recent years is shame dished out devoid of any relationship to broader cultural mores or communities. We are now a shameless culture in both meanings of the word: We believe that we can act any way we like because nothing is shameful; and we are willing to mock and belittle others with a shameless vengeance.
Otto Warmbier made a chain of bad decisions, and a brutal regime tragically killed him for them. But the real shame lies in what was done to him, and what has been done to so many other people suffering at the hands of undemocratic regimes.