I’m sure by now you’ve read the viral email sent by a member of the Delta Gamma sorority at the University of Maryland. For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, it’s a profanity-laced missive sent to all the members of the chapter berating them for doing a bad job interacting with the fraternity they were matched up with. It went viral and is now the subject of a lot of internet commentary and even a bunch of different videos of dramatic readings of the email. This round up of videos should give you a pretty good idea of what I’m talking about. The one featuring Michael Shannon is brilliant.
When I first read the email, I laughed my ass off. I didn’t think it could be entirely real but I loved the no holds barred f-bombs and aggressive “I don’t give an f*&k” rage. I am prone to thinking that really inappropriate things are funny, though, and this was profoundly inappropriate. The humor began to dissipate, however, when the young woman who wrote it started to come into sharper focus. Her twitter account was published, revealing a slew of racist, obnoxious, and generally hateful comments that shed new light on the once-funny email.
I teach college undergrads, which made me wonder how I would react to this situation if she were one of my students. You see, I love my students. I think undergrads are brilliant and hard working folks. I also recognize that they’re a large population of individuals and not a monolithic block of people who act and think the exact same way. Even undergrads in the Greek system. They’re all people, dealing with what life is throwing at them and trying to make the best of it.
If this young woman were my student, I would be so frustrated with her. She made a very bad call in sending that email and she should have known better. Especially now, when is she at an age where her actions truly matter and have long-lasting consequences, where people are less likely to dismiss stupidity as being a function of her youth. Will she be able to get a job now? Honestly, if I worked in HR I’d be very concerned about hiring her. The racist tweets? The anger issues? The total lack of judgement?
Here’s the flip side: if she were my student (even one who made me nuts), I’d be really, really worried about her right now. Her life has suddenly just changed. This is one of those moments where everything will be measured by whether it happened before or after this event. I would tell her that she’s going to find out who her friends are and that knowledge might be acquired painfully. I would tell her to be very cautious about the people who are drawn to her in the immediate aftermath of this event. I would encourage her to weigh her options and opportunities with as much wisdom as she can muster. I would also tell her that, like it or not, she’s on a platform right now. So make a choice. Use it for good, use it for evil, use it to make money, use it to create a persona, or try to climb off it with as much dignity as you can and get on your life. I would tell her to listen to her parents (and then I would hope her parents were good people who loved her and wanted what was best for her). I would tell her that this is a test of character and an opportunity to figure out how who she wants to be.
There’s another aspect of this situation that has been pinging around my brain. As a blogger, I have a love/hate relationship with social media and the Internet. I struggle with the concept that we must all anticipate every possible eventuality of putting our thoughts “out there” as well as every possible consequence and reaction we might get. Obviously, common sense should rule our behavior in these matters. Don’t send out emails you wouldn’t want other people to read. Don’t post explicit pictures of yourself. Don’t use social media in hurtful or exploitative ways. That’s mostly clear, right? RIGHT?
But how many of us can say honestly that every single email, blog post, Facebook update, tweet or Instagram we’ve ever created is consequence-free? Even people with excellent judgement can make tactical errors. Other things, if taken out of context, can look very damning. And what about all the things we can’t control? What about the people who take images and change them? Or hack accounts? Or snap our pictures and post them without our consent?
I find this brave new world difficult to negotiate and I can’t imagine how overwhelming it is must be for younger people. This is the only world they’ve ever known. There is no social life without social media. I can see how easily things like careful consideration and due diligence could become a lost cause for someone who essentially lives their whole life online. When every day is documented by Instagram and Twitter, as well as the days of all their friends. And they are subject to the impersonal, often cruel hierarchy of this social media. To survive in this world, you have to thicken your skin (and heart) and stop caring about every slight. Every photo that doesn’t get likes. Every person who doesn’t follow you back and every nasty tweet that was probably about you. You have to stop caring at a certain point or it will break you.
This is where my mind would go: I can’t win with this, so why bother trying? Because the only way to make sure you never put bad stuff out there about yourself is to (a) make no mistakes ever (impossible), (b) not engage in social media at all (not an option), or (c) try and be careful and hope for the best (that’s pretty much everyone). So you fall into category C but bad things can still happen. And if everyone has things out there that they regret, that are unflattering or potentially embarrassing, then f*&k it. YOLO. I’m just going to be real and live my life and not care and by the time I’m an adult, everyone will be in the same boat. It won’t matter because we’ll all have those stupid Instagram photos out there. At my Senate confirmation hearings these photos will surface, but the Senators who are voting for me will have their own pictures out there, too. And adults and parents and college professors don’t get that because they didn’t live it. They don’t get that it’s everyone. Everywhere. Japan. Australia. EVERYONE EVERYWHERE.
That is (I believe) the case here. She just didn’t care. Her sign off was: “And for those of you who are offended at this email, I would apologize but I really don’t give a f*&k. Go f*&k yourself.” If you combine this with her twitter history, you get a picture of a young woman who had so lost sight of the potential consequences of her actions and her public statements that they no longer played a role in her thinking.
Maybe her story will be a cautionary tale to others: start paying attention again, start being more careful, it DOES matter. But I worried that it might have the opposite effect. Was this girl’s reputation destroyed or made by that email going viral? Maybe she’ll get a book deal. Maybe she’ll go on Kimmel or something. That would be kind of cool.
But I asked my students about it all and one thing was clear: they didn’t think it was funny. Let me make that clear, I thought it was funny and they didn’t. You know what else they don’t think is funny? Making racist jokes on Twitter. And threatening to “literally assault” people. They thought it was all just profoundly stupid. The end.
And I was reminded again how amazing undergrads are and how lucky I am to teach them. And how my students are really smart.