Tragedy is inevitable. Our reaction to tragedy is not. We cannot govern every risk, but we must govern our reactions to risks. Here's the question we must ask ourselves: when awful things happen in the world, will we abandon reason and accept any measure urged by officials — petty and great — who invoke those awful things as justifications for action? Or will we think critically and demand that our leaders do so as well? Will we subject cries of "crime" and "drugs" and "terrorism" and "school shootings" to scrutiny? Will we be convinced to turn on each other in an irrational frenzy of suspicion, "for the children?"
If we don't maintain our critical thinking, we wind up with a nation run more and more like Bergen Community College in New Jersey, where we may be questioned and sent for reeducation for posting a picture of our daughter in a popular t-shirt on Google+.
Francis Schmidt is a popular professor of design and animation at Bergen. Schmidt posted to Google+ a cute picture of his young daughter wearing a Game of Thrones t-shirt in a yoga pose next to a cat. The t-shirt was this one, bearing the phrase "I will take what is mine with fire and blood," a quote from Daenerys Targaryen, a fictional character in a series of fantasy novels (which has sold tens of millions of copies) turned into a hot TV series on HBO (with close to 15 million viewers per episode.) Googling the phrase will instantly provide a context to anyone unfamiliar with the series.
So: a professor posts a cute picture of his kid in a t-shirt with a saying from a much-talked-about tv show. In the America we'd like to believe in, nothing happens. But in the America we've allowed to creep up on us, this happens:
But one contact — a dean — who was notified automatically via Google that the picture had been posted apparently took it as a threat. In an email, Jim Miller, the college’s executive director for human resources, told Schmidt to meet with him and two other administrators immediately in light of the “threatening email.”
Although it was winter break, Schmidt said he met with the administrators, including a security official, in one of their offices and was questioned repeatedly about the picture’s meaning and the popularity of “Game of Thrones.”
Schmidt said Miller asked him to use Google to verify the phrase, which he did, showing approximately 4 million hits. The professor said he asked why the photo had set off such a reaction, and that the security official said that “fire” could be a kind of proxy for “AK-47s.”
Despite Schmidt’s explanation, he was notified via email later in the week that he was being placed on leave without pay, effectively immediately, and that he would have to be cleared by a psychiatrist before he returned to campus. Schmidt said he was diagnosed with depression in 2007 but was easily cleared for this review, although even the brief time away from campus set back his students, especially those on independent study.
So. That happened.
Walter said she did not believe that the college had acted unfairly, especially considering that there were three school shootings nationwide in January, prior to Schmidt’s post. The suspects in all three shootings were minors targeting their local schools (although three additional shootings at colleges or universities happened later in the month).
This — this — is the core demand of the modern Fear State. Tell us what to fear, leaders, for the night is dark and full of terrors. Tell us what we have to do. Tell us what to think, and how to assess risks. Tell us "if you see something, say something" so we may feel duty-bound to vent our fears and insecurities about our fellow citizens rather than exercising judgment or compassion or proportion. Assure us that you must exercise your growing powers for our own safety, to ward off the terrible things we worry about.
Is Bergen some sort of unlikely citadel of irrationality? At first glance it may seem so. After all no well person would interpret the t-shirt as a threat and report it. That takes irrationality or dysfunction. No minimally competent or intelligent or honest school administrator would pursue such a report upon receiving it; rather, anyone exercising anything like rational discretion would Google the thing and immediately identify it as a mundane artifact of popular culture. No honest or near-normal intellect would say, as Jim Miller did, that the "fire" in the slogan might refer to an AK-47, a profoundly idiotic statement that resembles arguing that "May the Force Be With You" is a threat of force. Nobody with self-respect or minimal ability would claim that this professor's treatment was somehow justified by school shootings.
But Bergen isn't an anomaly. It's not a collection of dullards and subnormals — though Jim Miller and Kaye Walker could lead to think that it is. Bergen is the emerging norm. Bergen represents what we, the people, have been convinced to accept. Bergen is unremarkable in a world where we've accepted "if you see something, say something" as an excuse to emote like toddlers, and where we're lectured that we should be thankful that our neighbors are so eager to inform on us. Bergen is mundane in a world where we put kids in jail to be brutalized over obvious bad jokes on social media. Bergen exists in a world where officials use concepts like "cyberbullying" to police and retaliate against satire and criticism. Bergen exists in a world where we have allowed fears — fear of terrorism, fear of drugs, fear of crime, fear for our children — to become so powerful that merely invoking them is a key that unlocks any right. Bergen exists in a country where our leaders realize how powerful those fears are, and therefore relentlessly stretch them further and further, so we get things like the already-Orwellian Department of Homeland Security policing DVD piracy.
Certainly the Miller-Walter mindset is not unique in American academia. We've seen a professor's historical allusion cynically repackaged as a threat. We've seen a community college invoke 9/11 and Virginia Tech and Columbine to ban protest signs. In pop-culture debacle much like this one, we've seen a college tear down a "Firefly" poster as a threat. We've seen satire and criticism punished as "actionable harassment" or ""intimidation."
As a nation, we all need to decide whether we will surrender our critical thinking in response to buzzwords like "terrorism" and "drugs" and "crime" and "school shootings." On a local level, we must decide whether we will put up with such idiocy from our educational institutions. So tell me, students and teachers and alumni of Bergen Community College. Are you going to put up with that? Because institutions that act like this are not helping young people to be productive and independent adults. They are teaching fear, ignorance, and subservience.
Update: Bergen made a statement doubling down:
"The referenced incident refers to a private personnel matter at Bergen Community College. Since January 1, 2014, 34 incidents of school shootings have occurred in the United States. In following its safety and security procedures, the college investigates all situations where a member of its community – students, faculty, staff or local residents – expresses a safety or security concern."
There are at least two maddening components to this. First, they didn't just "investigate" — they suspended the professor and made him see a psychiatrist because he posted a picture of his daughter in a wildly popular t-shirt from pop culture. Second, the statement is an implicit admission that the college refuses to exercise critical thinking about the complaints it receives. There is no minimally rational connection between school shootings — or any type of violence — and a picture of someone's kid in a pop-culture t-shirt. The college is saying, in effect, "complain to us about your angers or fears, however utterly irrational, and we will act precipitously on them, because OMG 9/11 COLUMBINE TEH CHILDREN." Shameful. Ask yourself: what kind of education do you think your children will get from people who think like this?