Writing and Violence

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I asked my students yesterday if they had discussed what happened at Virginia Tech in any of their other classes. They shook their heads, no. Do you want to? They nodded, yeah.

We covered and added to some of the ironies named (in an email, below) by Virgina Tech English Professor Paul Heilker, including the "wrong way" the television media is going about reporting, such as potentially fueling copycat crimes, leaping to the politics of gun control, and competing for audience attention by packaging the news as entertainment.

Questions arose about the intersection of democracy (individual rights to, for instance, confidentiality) and general safety (how could this have been prevented?) Students wondered if UMass might create some new kind of policy, but we puzzled over what that policy might cover: when do principles of disclosure, intuition, and prevention cross the line of freedom and choice? How much do we want university authorities to be able to inform/manage us? Do we want a PA system like most high schools? Videocameras everywhere? Constant surveillance and mutual spying? When does reasonable fear become irrational paranoia? How much control is necessary, desirable?

Of course I wonder what might have been different if Cho's writing for his English classes had been publicly available? What if a wiki or other online technology opened certain spaces of intentional learning to broader scrutiny? What if an audience had been created, or allowed to construct itself, for Cho in a modality he obviously felt able to use to express himself? Why the insistence on speech when writing was how he did make himself accessible?

A NYTimes article from April 19, Anger of Killer Was on Exhibit in His Writings, details efforts by English department faculty and students to intervene and connect with Cho. Some students who did not make much of an effort now wonder if they should or could have done something, or tried harder. While I do agree with another professor English department from Virginia Tech, Edward Falco, that there is "a huge difference between writing about violence and behaving violently", I question the premise that suggests "more of the same" might have succeeded in averting this tragedy. Clearly, what was needed was something else, something different, another mode of communication, varied interlocutors, even a particular type of interlocutor not present or evident to Cho in a graduate level English department.

I am not now interested in Cho. I am intrigued by the range of individual and institutional responses to his action. Can we engage forms of collective responsibility and creative resolution? How deeply can we learn from this event and transform its aftermath from meaningless media hype to co-constructive citizenship?

"9:45 p.m., April 18th

Dear Friends and Family,

It is now two and a half days since the shootings on my campus. The number of dead remains incomprehensible. Thirty-three is an impossible number: I cannot emotionally process it. I thus find myself falling back upon my scholarly training in rhetoric and writing, but all it offers is an excruciating sense of the ironies involved:

That during the lockdown, we got better and more timely information from friends and family hundreds of miles away than we got through local, official channels;

That the agonizingly slow wait for drips of information to dribble from official sources occurred within a torrent of hundreds of messages and phone calls from friends, family, and colleagues, some of whom we had not heard from in literally 30 years;

That the "authoritative" sources of information so consistently got even basic facts wrong, like the name of our school (it's simply "Virginia Tech" -- nothing more);

That the nonstop babble on multiple cable networks had so very little to actually say;

That none of this endless mastication did anything to concretize or contextualize events, but the name of a single former student among the dead made one small fragment palpably, viscerally real;

That the first thing our political leaders had to say came not from them, but from their mouthpieces, and it stated merely what they would not talk about, which was gun control;

That most of the students who died at the hands of this foreign-born, non-speaking English major died in foreign language classes;

That the lyrics to "Shine," the song by Collective Soul that Cho listened to obsessively, the lyrics he wrote on his dorm room walls, included lines such as "Teach me how to speak // Teach me how to share," and yet he refused all overtures from those who tried repeatedly to do these very things;

That the spontaneous outbursts of college football cheers during the candlelight vigil seem to indicate that the students who survived the attack are struggling to express their emotions, much like the student who committed it;

That a person who refused to speak has caused such a continuous avalanche of discourse (has one silent person ever prompted this much talk?), that the silence from West AJ and Norris Hall has forced us to speak nonstop for 60 hours;

That after years of being asked to speak, begged to speak, and steadfastly, even aggressively refusing to do so, Cho Seung-Hui has finally decided to speak from the grave via videotape;

That after years of being endlessly offered an audience, a dialogue with his fellow students, his teachers, and counselors, Cho now wants to command an audience, demands a monologue;

That after years of being a self-described question mark, he now wants to provide answers.

But I, for one, am having none of it. I will not watch these tapes. I will not read transcripts of them. I don't want anyone to tell me what he says on them.

The most painful irony of all is this: now that Cho is finally ready to speak, I can't hear him."

2 Comments

I have been wondering about media's role too. I was watching a news channel the other day and they were going on and on about what was in Cho's mind and I couldnt help but wonder how much they were glorifying him. Ah well...

Yea, and some of my students were frustrated with representations of Cho as a victim. Clearly he was deeply disturbed, but the vast majority of people with mental illness do not go this far. I'm concerned with the range of scapegoating possibilities - against people with mental illness, against people of Asian appearance (he was, actually, an American citizen, right?), and even against quiet people. Actually I had not thought of this last group until a colleague mentioned it. In classes there are always students who are not very vocal. That should be ok!

Another (male) friend asked why there wasn't more discussion of gender. Cho breaks the ethnic profile (most - if not all? - previous mass school killers have been caucasian/white), but not the gender norm. This is an action done by men. What's up with that? Does the television media excuse or overlook this?

I specify television because it is the worst in terms of enfotainment. Radio does it too, depending on one's choice of station and disc jockeys. This is the privatization of mass media in the US. If one really wants hardcore journalism you have to read the newspapers, and it doesn't hurt to find out what the international press is saying about us either. TV keeps us spinning in a very small bubble.

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