Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Man With No Name

Since I wrote a chapter in the Virtualpolitik book about e-mail and am fascinated by e-mail etiquette more generally, it is not surprising that I read the official campus e-mails that I receive from the chancellor with a more critical rhetorical eye than most. I've noticed a peculiar pattern in these communications, the fact that they often contain remarkably little information. For example, we often get notices about a "death" of a faculty member or student, but the fact that it is getting coverage in the news media because the death is a murder or suicide is generally omitted.

My theory about these strange communications is that there are two possible explanations for these Sybil's leaves: 1) campus officers suffer from an over-reliance on a decorum of officialese that they have inherited and thus use a generic "campus tragedy" or "campus scandal" template for all bad news with little room for the granularity of particulars or 2) campus officers have been so immersed in damage control during the past sleepless twenty-four hours that they have forgotten that their audience might not have shared the same experience and thus might have absolutely no idea what they are talking about.

I submit the following example from this week:

As I often do when events occur that breach our university's commitment to values and civility, I feel a necessity to speak out. I'm speaking today of the offensive remarks supporting terrorism made during the question period following a noontime lecture at the flagpole on Thursday.

The past week included several speeches, lectures and discussions providing opposing views on the Middle East conflict, one of the world's most troubling confrontations. Much of what was said was the type of discourse on a difficult issue that is the hallmark of an educational institution committed to an exchange of ideas. Some of these views are very difficult and offensive to listen to. As is the case on all campuses, events sponsored by campus organizations and visitors may feature ideas and opinions that can be starkly different from ours. But as we know, it is nevertheless incumbent upon us to protect the freedom of speech of those who visit our campus to express their views, even when we disagree.

Let me be clear: we condemn the speaker's endorsement of terrorism. Nothing could be more contrary to our fundamental values and our commitment to dialogue and democratic rule, not violence. We are an educational institution that promotes, practices and teaches tolerance; these remarks supporting terrorism were deplorable.

As a public university our free speech venue is open to a broad range of views, and we're a stronger campus for doing that. But we will never allow ourselves to be defined by the outside views of others.

They may speak here, but they don't speak for us.

Chancellor Michael Drake

Okay, at this point I am baffled. I find myself asking the same basic questions that I ask students who are faced with explicating a few lines of poetry. "Who is the speaker?" "What precisely was said?" Proper names and direct quotations would certainly be helpful here.

From "Speaker denounces Zionism in UCI Protest" in the Orange County Register, I would guess that the e-mail refers to Islamic activist Amir Abdel Malik Ali, an admitted supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah. The president of the Muslim Student Union, known for bringing controversial speakers to campus, did not answer definitively about his own feelings about those groups, although he did say "I condemn the killing of innocent civilians." Opposing faculty members wrote an open letter to the campus newspaper protesting activities around "Wall Week."

In the course of gathering this background information, I was struck by the paper's comments policy. Unlike the Los Angeles Times or the San Francisco Chronicle, which have given up, the Register is trying to reign in joking about tragedies.

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