Scholars and the Public CyberSquare

Over the last several decades educational institutions have called upon their faculty to become socially embedded; other educational and cultural institutions press for the interaction of scholars and other qualified folks (sometimes called “public intellectuals”) to interact with the public on a more frequent basis.  On the whole, those scholars who have these opportunities accept, even embrace them.

However, the world of cyberspace changes the terrain of interaction a great deal. In the past a scholar, speaking before an audience, knew that in most cases audience members would behave in a civil and respectful manner, whatever their personal sentiments and beliefs. If nothing else, they did not want to look foolish in front of other audience members. If one wrote an essay, opinion piece, or op-ed, one did not anticipate many responses, and fewer still that would be public. Here and there one would get a nasty letter, but that exchange was private, and one could simply ignore the letter and leave it at that. There was rarely an audience for such exchanges, and the effort of composition and transmittal deterred many a would-be critic, who had no audience to please or impress.

That is no longer the case in the world of online discussion and e-mail. It’s rather easy for people to contact one another, and far easier to hit “send” than to mail a letter. Moreover, one can conduct these exchanges in public, where an audience that is sometimes all too eager to watch such exchanges (even as some bystanders claim to deplore such stuff) awaits. Indeed, beyond this one encounters people who love to wag their fingers in disapproval of anything that does not meet their own standards of civility (although my experience is that these self-appointed monitors of discourse seem far more interested in how scholars behave than in how other people behave, an interesting concession that one does not hold one’s fellow citizens to the same standards that one expects of scholars and public intellectuals.

Kevin Levin has weighed in at Civil War Memory on a recent incident in which participants aired their exchanges on the pages on Facebook. I think Kevin’s captured only part of the situation. My own experience is that face-to-face confrontations rarely spiral out of control in the way that screen-to-screen confrontations often do, in large part because of the role played by the audience  that is so visible present in face-to-face exchanges.  I had cause to reflect on this several evenings ago, when two people went after me in comments after a public presentation. The challenges themselves were rather easy to handle, and I received numerous complements from scholars and audience members alike for how I handled the questioners. Whether this would have been the same result in cyberspace is difficult to determine, but I think not.

It’s worth pondering these issues and how cyberspace alters public discourse, period. What do you think?

Pat Hines Advocates the Murder of Schoolchildren?

That’s right … Pat Hines, southern nationalist, advocates the murder of schoolchildren if the United States does not leave the South to itself.

He did so on Connie Chastain’s “Backsass!”  Ms. Chastain and another poster were mourning the horror of the Beslan massacre some eight years ago, and they expressed concern that the same sort of horrible slaughter might happen in the United States.

Then Pat Hines piped up:

Let’s give credit where credit is due here.  Chastain not only distances herself from Hines, but she expresses her incredulity that Hines actually means what he says. Hines has no problem confirming that he means what he says:

Folks, it’s time that these sorts of threats of violence are stopped.  Report the group and Hines to Facebook.

Is this what southern nationalism is all about?  I doubt it, but let’s see what folks who like Hines do when they discover this.  That’s right, League of the South … I’m looking at you boys right now.

Inquiring Minds Want to Know

I must admit that I’ve always been fascinated by the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and George B. McClellan. My views have changed over time, to be sure.  My initial reading (decades ago) reflected what some would see as “Lincoln good, McClellan bad”; it did not help that when I read something that looked more charitably upon McClellan, the work in question often struck me as special pleading.  In short, I was weighing what others told me about the relationship, and I’d argue that the people who presented the tale as “Lincoln good, McClellan bad” told their story better.

I no longer feel that way.  Although I doubt that people would label me a McClellan apologist, and some would still take me to task for some of the things I have said about McClellan, I nevertheless have come to a position where I try to understand how McClellan saw things and where I can question how Lincoln treated him.  Take Richard Slotkin’s new book, The Long Road to Antietam, which I am currently reading between other responsibilities (clearly this one will go on the plane with me). Unlike some of my blogging colleagues, who have dismissed the book out of hand, I think it’s best to read something before I form anything more than a passing impression about it (and to set aside that passing impression as I read it).  I was quite taken by Slotkin’s decision to portray Lincoln as conducting a campaign to undermine McClellan, and that he employed White House aide John Hay to advance the process by having Hay plant stories critical of McClellan in the press.

Is this how a commander in chief is supposed to behave? We know about the jokes and the critical remarks, but what about this, too?  How can one in fairness trash McClellan for behaving as he did without holding Lincoln to the same standards of behavior?

Inquiring minds want to know.