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You aren’t detached from your words: A response to ‘Duke’s future’

Here’s a strange concept: writing that has a clear meaning but remains baffling. A piece where everything makes sense, but you’re still confused, and when all is said and done, the question remains: what did you hope to accomplish? This was my thought coming out of a recent column in the Chronicle titled “Duke’s future: Less fun, more woke, more careerist.” 

The author comes out swinging with a description of Duke’s lockdown as “trotting out the same old playbook.” This characterization of a sleepy, uninspired Duke leaves me wondering what he thought the ‘high-energy’ response would be. At another point, we see an indignant, thinly veiled attack at people who reject “the difference between men and women.” Before we can even process this comment, they have moved on; the only insight we get on the “gender difference” debate is that a) there is one, and b) our author dislikes that. It’s a comment as useful as a “Donald Trump bad” joke, which is to say that it isn’t useful. 

This is the general pattern of the column: the author will throw a weak rhetorical punch before running away. In the end, all we come away with is knowledge of the things he dislikes—a boring read made confusing by its lack of purposeful moves. This, on its own, is fine; I’m used to weak opinion writing. What I find interesting, however, is his insistence that he is “a humble stenographer of the Discourse (sic) as it unfolds before [him].” Beyond the funny observation that this sentence seems to be pulled straight out of thesaurus.com—a stenographer deals in direct reproduction, while this column only quotes an unrelated copypasta, for example—the claim that he could be “totally detached from the proceedings” is an interesting one to explore.

It’s easy enough to prove that the author is not an impartial reporter. We can start with his description of the “Discourse” as he sees it: “a war of words between furious independents and jeering frat boys.” Note the choice of adjectives: we have ‘triggered liberals’ juxtaposed with amused Greeks. Already, they are ignoring the reality that many of these “jeering” characters could be better described as seething—furious that they are being called out. Anyone reading the same sources (confession pages and the like) would have seen plenty of frat boys painting themselves as victims, or complaining that other SLG’s aren’t catching the same flak. 

Regardless, there is an implied overreaction when one side is framed as laughing at the other. It would suggest that a week-long lockdown, and more than 100 covid cases, was no big deal—something corroborated by that strange description of Duke’s response. Through analyzing two words, the author’s angle is clear: Greek life is cool and good, while everyone else is fragile and boring. Really, you only have to read the column’s title to realize that, but it’s funny how tenuous his ‘impartiality’ is.

Obviously this column is in denial, but it is important to recognize that it is impossible for a column to be an impartial account of anything. This starts and ends with the fact that an exhaustive account is unachievable. Given that that is true, we recognize that an author has to make choices about what they include and how they include it. If you’re depicting some dispute, whose account comes first? What context is relevant? These questions, along with plenty of others, have no objective answer: we use our own judgement. Because of that, our biases leak into even the most banal, ‘objective’ retellings of a story. 

An interesting example of this is the author’s (inexplicable) pride in announcing that his sources for this column include Greekranked and a Facebook confession page. This reflects something about both him and his portrayal of events. By ostensibly basing all of his analysis on these sources, he has signalled a belief that anonymous forums for venting and trolling are a solid indicator of the mood on campus. I would respond that it only offers insight into what conservatives wish they could say. After all, for better or for worse, liberal students don’t need anonymous forums to broadcast their beliefs, and so the opinions they post on these forums are generally responses to offensive content, or a hyperbolic rant. Neither of these give a solid glimpse into what liberals or independents think. They are self-inflicted caricatures.

Hence, the column is informing its opinions from places where most sincere comments come from conservatives and greeks, along with the occasional liberal who self-selected into that space. When the author jokes about “geeds” and “double masking,” it becomes obvious how much the source colours the reporting. It’s analogous to visiting 4chan or Parler to investigate a political controversy, saying that the two horrified liberals on the platform are representative of everyone, then throwing around words like “cuck” in your article. Note, however, that this happens no matter who an author cites: reporting is characterized by its sources. It just so happens that this choice of source is particularly telling.

In fact, when the author links his copypasta, ostensibly to say that ‘nothing I said means anything, don’t read into it,’ it becomes obvious that all communication is defined by its origin—it never means nothing. Though he is right to imply that his column fails to prove any point, that doesn’t mean that his quips say nothing about what he believes. He is not “totally detached,” and here I refer to his conclusion: 

“Of course, students in the future will still have some time for fun. It’s just that some of Duke’s more problematic, less inclusive customs will have to be abolished to appease the shifting mores of each passing year. Wednesday night Shooters will become “Wednesday night restorative justice circling.” Instead of a déclassé barn party, the McKinsey info session will be that week’s must-attend event. ”

It’s not a strong argument, and the jokes aren’t that funny. However, what this bit communicates to us, quite clearly, is that its author believes fun and inclusivity are opposites. That people asking for respect comes at the expense of everyone’s enjoyment, and—as a direct corollary—that minorities and their allies are to blame for things not being fun anymore. This is not an objective statement, and he never makes the connection between “inclusion” and a square’s conception of fun. At best, he cites a blog post complaining about how much cooler things were in the 90’s, to which my only response is this. However, the fact that the author makes this comment, and takes these ideas for granted, is still illustrative of his worldview. 

This, more than anything, is why I decided to write a response to this column. It helps to frame a discussion on the impulse to treat humour as devoid of meaning: if you don’t want to be criticized, say you were only joking. If that doesn’t work, we now have claims of “irony,” which is what is being employed here. The logic goes that something said insincerely must be detached from the speaker’s own views.

In both cases, I would argue that jokes and ironic statements are born from a context—much like a column is—and that this context unmasks the speaker. In order for a joke to work, it needs a premise. Intuitively, the joke maker must accept, or at least empathize with, that premise. When someone makes a homophobic joke, I think it is reasonable, then, to say that they have some sympathy for homophobia. If they think it can elicit a laugh, they are telling on themselves and their audience.

Situational irony, by its very name, is also responsive to a situation. In acting “ironically,” you must recognize and engage with our expectations. You are making a critique of society, and your critiques cannot be detached from your views. Insincere comments might be hard to parse, but they still reveal things upon inspection. It shows an unwillingness to own your beliefs—not an escape from them.

In an age where people deflect criticism by saying “it’s just a joke,” or “I was being ironic” the best response is “how is that funny?” When people defend the latent bigotry on Greekranked as “shitposting,” it doesn’t change the fact that the community found those jokes funny. Ironically, what an attempt at ‘objective, detached’ “stenography” offers us is not a perfect depiction of the discourse, but an understanding of where the reporter stands. Our author’s attempts at irony and “detached commentary” hide a strange idolization of Greek life, a distaste for inclusivity and a litany of other hang-ups which I decided not to mention. It would have been better for everyone if, instead of hiding behind ‘irony’, he just owned his words. 

Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity first-year. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. 

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