Opinion

Valentine's Day in The Pit

I can look back on various personal relationships over the years and, without regretting who I have become, regret having acted in ways that were less than thoughtful, and which hurt others. I'm sure that you can, too; maybe not if you are a Neocon. But boy, oh boy, there was a powerful event at UNC on Valentine's Day. And the way the adult world reacted to it was pretty interesting.

When I first read the stories, I was shocked at the apparent lack of sensitivity and obvious meanness of Ryan Burke, a senior at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who used Facebook and text-messaging to bring together a crowd of more than 1,000 students at The Pit, in the center of campus, to watch him abusively break up in public with his unsuspecting girlfriend of four months, Mindy Moorman, with the help of a women's a capella group singing the Dixie Chick's "I'm Not Ready to Make Nice."
They exchange harsh words--several of them four-letter epithets--while the audience watches, laughs and jeers. At one point, the crowd starts chanting "slut, slut, slut" at the woman. She fights back (verbally), telling her by-then-ex that if he needs an audience to break up with her, he must have the problem. Many of those watching have cameras and are filming throughout, and numerous videos quickly end up on YouTube, where in less than two weeks they have attracted more than 500,000 viewers--along with parody videos, Facebook groups pro and con, and much debate.
--Inside Higher Ed
You can watch some YouTube of this event here and here, and you can watch an interview with Burke here.

When I first read of this story, I had just read a recent report about how powerful/egotistical people have difficulty writing a capital letter "E" on their foreheads (without looking in a mirror) in a way that others could read it while looking at them, apparently because they just don't naturally think in ways that let them put themselves behinds others' eyes.

So, of course, I was immediately wondering if Ryan Burke could draw a backwards "E" on his forehead without looking into a mirror. Then, a little while later, reading an Inside Higher Ed story titled "Jerry Springer U.," and, following some of the comments, I was sympathizing with the administrators on that campus. One commentator wrote:
The problem with this digital culture is that people are no longer learning basic social skills. IMing, facebook, etc. [allow] people to communicate without acquiring basic social graces--tolerance, humanity, compassion, teamwork, etc. Parents who allow their children to grow up hiding behind the Internet/e-mail/IM/Facebook/constant video games, etc. and not encouraging them to actually interact with their peers and others on a face to face level are doing their children a disservice.
--Inside Higher Ed
Oh, yeah, I was nodding my head at this. I've been writing for a decade now about the Lord of the Flies syndrome resulting from kids growing up in a cyberspace without significant adult mentorship, which just magnifies the already powerful online disinhibitory effect measured by psychologists. "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," you know.

I particularly resonated, however, with the comments of professor Joseph Duemer, of Clarkson University, who noted:
I don't fault the technology--I fault the cruelty of the incident. And the willingness of the mob to participate in that cruelty. But it's not new. It's as old as stoning. As old as burning at the stake. As old as lynching. Technology just makes cruelty more portable.
This is what I think, too. It is easy with this particular generation to be concerned with some of the research that shows exposure to information in these new ways might be changing the way young people learn, with even measurable physical changes to their brains. Looking at history, though, the kinds of behaviors the incident at UNC brought out are things you can find from the beginning of time. Just think what happened to the folks inside Jericho after the "walls came tumbling down," or about the Jim Crow era's lynchings, or the atrocities at Abu Graihb.

Then I read the follow-up stories that just recently came out, in which Burke admitted that he and the woman in question had never dated, and that the break up was a staged performance art to show "the power of Internet communities":
The whole thing began when Burke advertised the 'breakup' on the online social network Facebook. More than 1,300 people said they planned to watch him dump Moorman, whom he said in interviews he'd dated for four months. On Facebook, he said Moorman had cheated on him.
--Topix
So, Burke and Moorman just performed a variant on the Lonely Girl theme, with the twist that they caused 1,000-plus people to swarm The Pit. No meanness there from Burke and Moorman, although university administrators might be asking them why they didn't obtain the necessary permit for such a large swarm. (Assuming UNC requires permits for such.)

OTOH (On the other hand, for you Boomers.), when you think about the behavior of the crowd, you have to be impressed by its ferocity, as well as by how amused it is. As one girl states to a friend, off camera, at the beginning of on of the YouTube clips: "It's not for a show." Then, as Burke starts talking to Moorman, the crowd yells, "Louder, we can't hear you." Working the crowd were a number of groups with stickers and causes, even the singing group made sure that the crowd knew the date of their next engagement.

The event as it happened, if you bother to watch it, just wasn't all that cruel, even if it had been completely authentic. I recommend that you watch the YouTube, enjoy the music, and think about it a bit. If there's one thing you do this week to better understand our students, watch the video and think.

One woman in the audience had brought a present for Moorman. In the end, the entire crowd chants, "Nah, nah, nah, nah, good-bye." Is there anyone there who is not having fun? Even the woman being dumped showed no signs of hurt emotions, instead "getting into it" with zest.

The people who were there all had fun. The people who reported on it all thought it was terrible. With the power of the Internet and YouTube, we can join the nearly 1 million others who have also been there. Without it, if we'd heard of this story at all, we'd only have heard it being painted in the most negative light.

About the Author

About the author: Terry Calhoun is Director of Communications and Publications for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). You can contact him through CT's IT Trends forum by clicking here. View more articles by Terry Calhoun.

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