Last month, a tenured professor of English I know posted the following comment on the social media page of an elected official who wanted public input on Covid-19 vaccination policies. “At this point, as vicious as it sounds,” she wrote, “I wouldn’t care if every unvaccinated person died.”
Speaking precisely, her diction indicates apathy towards the unvaccinated. She expresses no desire for them to die. Rather, she believes that it’s time for society to wash its hands from having to deal with them. “I wouldn’t care” is quite different from “I wish they would.”
Of course, most people perceived her comment as insidious. Many of them called administrators at the university where she teaches and demanded that she be fired. The chair of her division placed her on leave for the semester, and has facilitated her early retirement. Furthermore, the chair tapped the brakes on the endowed chair that the professor’s former students had established in her honor.
So much for the free exchange of ideas promised by the tenure system.
I try to teach students how to think, not what to think. I bring up difficult topics in class because I want you to learn how to discuss such things civilly and with productive ends in mind. I try to revel in logic and ethos of each argument rather than in winners and losers.
Yet I also warn students that “if you can’t get other people to think you’re right, you might as well be wrong.” In an era when social media both simplifies the way we share information and complicates its impact, my acquaintance’s story serves as a cautionary tale: we will be held accountable not only for what we say, but also how others interpret it.
The professor did not walk into a crowded building and yell “Fire!” She did not advocate genocide, deny historical fact, or use profanity. She shared an opinion that caused some people in power to clutch their pearls. Was her punishment fair? At what point do opinions expressed in social media through personal accounts become actionable?