Monday, April 06, 2009

Lucinda Roy's book on the Virginia Tech tragedy: an important contribution to the debate on free speech

Author: Lucinda Roy.
Title: "No Right to Remain Silent: The Tragedy at Virginia Tech".
Publication and Description: New York: Harmony, 2009. 326 pages, indexed, hardcover. ISBN 978-0-307-40963-8.

Lucinda Ray is an Alumni Distinguished Professor of English at Virginia Tech, where she has taught since 1985. She explains her anti-miranda title near the end of the book. After such a horrendous tragedy, no one has a right to play politics or loyalty. Everyone has a responsibility to take public accountability to get to the bottom of what happened.

I could say that about some events in my own life, not tragic but traumatic for me and others. But that leads into the discussion about free speech. In fact, Dave Cullen had reviewed this book in The Washington Post on March 29, 2009, and caught my attention by saying that unstable people signal their “violent inclinations in advance, often in fiction, poetry or other creative outlets.”

Before returning to the subject of Cho Seung-Hui’s writings, it’s important to give a full prespective of the book. It is in three parts “Horror Story”, “Backstory” and “Dialogue”. The first part does relive that cold spring day, April 16, 2007, in Blacksburg, VA. But Dr. Roy sets amplifies all of this with her own resume, which includes a biracial ancestry (like our president now), a period in Sierra Leone, where she saw the same horrors that journalist Sebastian Junger would document, and, later, teaching in Britain, where she learned what is demanded of teachers with less privileged kids. She does have some things to say about the state of education, and of what we expect of teachers (she actually says that subs can be tougher), and, in other areas, about gun control, where she defuses the NRA’s claim that “people kill people” is in fact a canard.

She also gives an interesting perspective on teaching writing and particularly creative writing. I had been surprised that a school like Virginia Tech had significant resources in this area. (Let me add, when I was in high school it was called “VPI” (Virginia Polytechnic Institute) known for its ROTC; my best high school friend went there and applied to no other school.) She provides some incidental discussion of technical aspects of poetry, such as with a sestina published as an appendix.

It seems odd to me that a college student would need a "tutor" for poetry writing, but her last personal contact with Cho was a tutoring event where she helped him write a poem "Seung" about himself. She discusses his "selective mutism", and the impression that he left of an incredible void and emptiness. She mentions his own convenient metaphors (comparing his writings to that the satires of Jonathan Swift)

In the early part of the book, she gives her side of the story (in sometimes tedious detail) about her disagreements with the Virginia Tech administration on how to speak to the press, and she goes into all of the difficult questions about how to decide when students could pose a threat to others and need help.

I can react to much of her discussion with my own experience, having been thrown out of college in 1961 for admitting homosexuality, and then dealing with the psychiatric establishment with its values at the time – the “nothing to be ashamed of” line. Yet even then, the mental health world struggled to deal with the “birds and the bees” about karma: the world is competitive, and expects a lot of people, some of whom will have trouble with what is expected as part of the “price of admission”. They may become resentful and seek out sadistic outlets and, more rarely, outright revenge (as with this tragedy), but underlying this is a preoccupation with one’s own needs (sometimes leading to outright narcissism) and disinclination to connect with and empathize with others. Beyond that, sometimes mental health problems do have biological causes and can be treated with medications. We know that, but it’s unclear if medications could have helped Cho. At a certain existential level one could imagine the point or target of his rage (supposedly expressed in the ranting “manifesto” sent to NBC); but, as Roy points out, most of the victims themselves had worked hard and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps; they were not from the "lazy bourgeoisie". At earlier points in my life, I have been around persons from the radical Left who would think nothing of going out and hunting for “enemies of the People.” And we see plenty of that in world history.

But the most controversial material in the book is the discussion of free speech, and the “ethics” of writing, and of the difficult problem of determining whether a person’s writings can be used to show that he (or she) could represent a danger to others. That material appears in the book’s middle section, in Chapter 9, “Writers and Writing.” Her presentation of this issue meanders somewhat and is ultimately inconclusive. She points out that an early novel by Stephen King, “Rage”, was acted out by Robert Loukaitis in Moses Lake, Washington in 1996. She discusses an earlier “Student A” who, back in 2005, had caused her concern. She mentions Gus Van Sant's grainy and horrific little film "Elephant" (which I have seen).

There are some pointed sentences in the book that summarize her general impression of this matter. On p. 202, she writes "Creative writing isn't simply about self-expression; it's about craft and hard work." On p. 206 she says "Some student-writers use writing as a kind of weapon -- a way to intimidate and provoke." That reminds me of an angry email I got once from an Australian who found by websites snobbish, posturing and unempathetic: "What gives you the right to the idea that you are intellectually above the 'cretins' of the world? Education is a tool, not a weapon to threaten anyone with."

The question is quite troubling to me, and in a world where we have turned people with no capital loose on social networking sites and blogs, it presents a potential conundrum that we never anticipated as our technology for self-expression grew. Roy points out that violent material is well accepted in corporate media, particularly Hollywood and when from established novelists (like King). The same material, however, raises alarm bells when a student writes something like that in the school systems or even in college.

That seems to beg the whole question of context and what some judges now call “implicit content” (a term that got tosses around a bit in the testimony at the COPA trial which I cover elsewhere in my blogs). Content that is placed for free viewing online without significant or any income by someone with no family responsibility might beg the existential question from the reader, “so am I supposed to do something?” Then, the question of enticement might arise, it seems to me. On a school campus, however, the “universe” of possible readers is likely to be perceived as the campus itself, even if the blogger has not used privacy settings. Or, perhaps, as in the cases discussed in Lucinda Roy’s book, a student writes something provocative to make others experience his pain or sense of rejection, and knows that by circulating it in a creative writing class (or perhaps, among adults, in a screenwriting forum) he will achieve that effect. It doesn’t have to be posted online at all. As I recall, after the tragedy, some of Cho’s most violent material was posted online (especially on AOL), but I don’t recall that it had been available online before. (Cho's "screenplays" made me wonder if he had been abused.) Roy discusses another incident at UVa where a student wrote a story that seemed to target the son (a professor) of a particular Supreme Court justice, raising concerns about the possibility of intent. The writer was confronted by police and then expelled. Roy notes that students adamantly defend their First Amendment right to write violent or provocative material for creative writing course work.

Roy does note that teachers today have to face the "equalizing" capability of students to create web sites that rate the teachers, and that these are probably protected by the First Amendment. Roy says she supports the First Amendment, but says that in a modern society it leads to certain conundrums. (That leads to the "mashup" and "unthinkable" concepts in Joshua Ramo's book, reviewed ahead, April 12 on this blog.) She also offers some comparison between the mentalities of those dedicated to the First Amendment, and those concerned with the Second, which tend to be different crowds.

I had an experience like with the public Internet "implicit content" problem as a substitute teacher in 2005, which I discuss on my main blog on the July 27, 2007 entry. I wrote a screenplay (and put it on my own privately hosted domain) in which a substitute teacher is manipulated by a precocious student into a compromising situation and then prosecuted by police; the whole episode starts earlier when the teacher saves the sub’s life with a defibrillator, and then befriends the sub outside of school. In the context of the screenplay, it is supposed to be unclear whether the sub is actually “guilty” but he is aggressively prosecuted (after a bizarre police arrest at school) and winds up in prison, where he dies during surgery, while the student promotes the sub’s classical music and seems to be rewarded by the incident. The story is not violent or explicit in the usual sense, but definitely has some troubling innuendo. But I got in real trouble (I guess a parent found it), because the character resembled me “too much” and raised questions about my fitness. There is a commercial film ("Student Seduction") about a female teacher from LionsGate/Lifetime with a similar plot concept, and I believe that my own work expresses an irony like that of "Dorian Gray". (In fact, the classes during that incident had been reading and comparing to film Richard Connell's provocative and sometimes violent 1920s story "The Most Dangerous Game"!) Again, Hollywood can do things that students and even teachers can’t, it seems (as Roy points out). The whole situation was complicated; I did other work for the school system and eventually taught again and then quit for other reasons. But the incident shows how tricky and unsettling the “implicit content” problem can be.

I think we are headed toward an environment where creative writing is looked at in the context of the writer’s life circumstances for “evidentiary” nature of a propensity for illegal or destructive behavior – following a legal concept (“rebuttable presumption”) familiar from the “don’t ask don’t tell” policy for gays in the military. We’ve seen other examples of public expressive behavior aimed at nothing less than getting others to share one’s “pain” (such as the “false confession” by John Mark Karr, himself a former teacher). However Roy points out that, while introverted writers may enjoy the control they have over the characters on their private artistic stage while they write, there are elements in fiction (or poetry or other narratives) that can help establish artistic legitimacy, even among “amateurs”. In fiction, for example, are the characters varied and real and sufficiently distinct from the “fantasy world” of an introverted author? Does the novel tell a real story driven by the characters, or is it just a ruse for the author’s social agenda? There is plenty of material on “character-driven” fiction and how it should work. Roy does talk a little bit about literary agents, and that’s what they look for. She doesn’t mention the possibility of self-publishing, through print-on-demand companies, of personal material that might not have been well received.

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