Cultural Sensitivity: We are what we tweet

My colleague, Chris Stipeck, who I’ve worked with for 5+ years, sent me an article by Ian Parker that appears in the February 6, 2012 edition of The New Yorker entitled “The Story of a Suicide.”  The article outlines in great detail the incidents leading up to the death of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi in September 2010.  Clementi’s roommate Dharun Ravi is currently on trial for a slew of charges pending from an incident where he videotaped Clementi having a sexual encounter with another man. After Clementi discovered this invasion of his privacy and the supposed broadcasting of his encounter into cyberworld, Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge, killing himself, and igniting a firestorm of national attention around bullying, or what some have come to call social combat, a term that I prefer because of its weight and scope.

Chris and I have been talking about this incident off and on for the past 15 months.  We share many things in common, most notably that we live and work among 1000 first-year college students at New York University.  It’s a unique experience living with this cohort, one that I’ve enjoyed for seven years now, and I’m constantly reminded of what it’s like to be 17 or 18 years old and a student.  I do academic and social programs with the students, as does Chris, but he also manages all aspects of the building, including 30+ professional and para-professional staff members.  He and I meet every other week to discuss our work and the events within the building, and our conversations often veer into social, cultural, and political topics.  He’s an intelligent and thoughtful guy, and our conversations consistently provide me with insights that affect how I work and interact with students, both in residence and in the classroom.

Clementi’s story has been an ongoing topic for Chris and I for a variety of reasons, and the contents of this article have already made the“agenda” of our next breakfast meeting.  However, in advance of our conversation, some thoughts already crystalized that I can’t help but share out on this blog, as I’ve spent many an entry over the last year emphasizing the importance of paying attention when it comes to the complicated phenomenon of social combat amongst young people.

The details within Parker’s article provide valuable insight into the complexities of the Clementi case, mostly in the form of text messages, tweets, chats entries, and Facebook posts that Parker has somehow obtained.  This avalanche of cyber evidence is disconcerting for two reasons.  First, I realized just how public our social media information is, meaning that once it’s out there, it’s out there.  There’s no taking it back, even if we think we deleted it.  We really are what we tweet.

Second, and more importantly, these captured messages and comments reveal an astounding lack of cultural sensitivity from the cast of characters in the Clementi story.  The article gently points out that even Clementi, who is clearly the victim is this incident, displayed some of his own cultural biases in his cyber messages.  Suddenly, a case that has been mostly black and white for me has many more shades of grey, not because I think that Tyler Clementi is guilty of anything, but more because the blurry and often imperceptible worlds of social combat and non-conscious bias have come into sharper focus.

Plain and simple, the cyber messages illustrate that we’re failing to effectively educate young people about cultural sensitivity before they arrive to college.

I mean failing.  Miserably.

Even with the proliferation of “bullying” curricula in schools nowadays, the average young person comes to college with very little understanding of difference outside of her or his own closed family or community.  The formal education doesn’t appear to be sticking.  Sociologists report that the Milllennial Generation, of which all of these Clementi characters are a part of, are allegedly the most open to our multicultural and globalized world, however their cybermessaging tells a very different story.

For many, this is not news.  I have a friend who I’ve known for 35 years, since kindergarten, who fights a daily battle for the safety of her son at school.  He’s different, knows he’s different, and has no qualms about showing it.  I’ve met him and he’s a great kid.  Unfortunately, his classmates, give him a hard time.  Interestingly enough, his school has been cited as an excellent example of how to prevent social combat, but his mom has a different story to tell.  Having grown up in this town, I understand what she’s up against.  The school may be doing its job to some extent, or maybe those educators and administrators aren’t doing enough.  It’s hard to say for sure.  But even if my friend wins her battle with the school, she still has a larger problem to tackle.  Social combat has very deep roots in the messages that young people receive from family members about what is “normal” and “acceptable.”

What we define as “normal” depends on our own personal experiences and perspectives, and our definitions come from our interactions with family members and friends.  The cyber messages from the Clementi case illustrate a lack of sensitivity around race and ethnicity, but even more so around issues of sexual orientation and socioeconomic status.  That last one, SES for short, runs deep in this country, deeper than many like to admit, and we need to spend more time and energy thinking about how class plays out in social combat scenarios.

So if we are what we tweet, and I use “tweet” as a contemporary euphemism for what we say, then we have a lot of work to do.  We can’t practice cultural sensitivity only when we speak aloud; sensitivity needs to be applied to all of our communication, even the communication that we think is private.  And to be clear, I’m not advocating for some kind of politically correct policing of language.  I’m asking for people to pay attention to what they say and how they say it.  We all move through life on a spectrum of sensitivity.  What one finds offensive, another may find funny or simply mundane.  Because of these multiple perspectives, we have a responsibility to tread carefully and mind our tweets.  And to teach young people to do the same, before they venture out alone into the often-unforgiving, multicultural, globalized fray that is our 21st century existence.