Those are Monica Lewinsky’s words in summary about her “affair” with President William Jefferson Clinton. In a Vanity Fair article, due out tomorrow, she claims that the Tyler Clementi incident – no, let me rephrase, the suicide of 18 year old freshman college student, Tyler Clementi, due to the humiliation, one assumes, from the exposure of his same-sex experience filmed by his not-thinking-it-through-to-say-the-least and oh-how-that-young-man-and-his-family-have-paid-for-the-lapse-in-thought-too -- drove him to take his life by forcing a fall from the George Washington Bridge. Exposure amplified by the Internet.
The technology: the Internet. The business model: media. The law: surprise! In this case, a state with a criminal action for invasion of privacy found the defendant guilty. The social norms … ah, “the play is the thing in which I will catch the conscience of the king!” Hamlet, of course. But also you and me. Our insatiable and sometimes salacious interest in other people’s lives. That interest thrives on the current confluence of technology and media business models.
What role should higher education play in this drama? Let’s begin with a preliminary question, just to clear the mind. Does higher education change human nature, in its social context, with whatever discontents that context implies? No.
What it does, or what it aspires to do, is to shape human nature, personality and character according to some generalizable, principled lines: an ethical perspective with a fundamental sense of “right” and “wrong” informed by an understanding of circumstance and deep, personal inquiry. Is that perspective socially constructed? Yes! Does it drive to singular conclusions? No. At its best, I submit, it creates informed inquiry to keep “ethics” alive.
As a test of this principle, let’s ask: Who was more ethical in their time? The Grimke Sisters, who abandoned their family and cushy lives in South Carolinian antebellum slaveholding society and fled to Philadelphia to become leaders in the anti-slavery movement? Rebels such as John Brown, a white abolitionist responsible the illegal butcher of many alleged pro-slavery settlers in “Bleeding Kansas” of the 1850’s;” Denmark Vesey, a Virginia slave who planned a rebellion, was discovered before anything happened, and then executed for the mere plan; Nat Turner, also a Virginia a slave but one who realized a rebellion that resulted in 55 dead white people, and then who was captured, tried and executed in 1831 … 34 years before the commencement of the Civil War … essentially begun by President Lincoln, who persisted in an election that resulted in secession that led to war and the slaughter of over half a million soldiers, both Confederate and Union?
I. Myself. Deeply. Regret. What. Happened.
Higher education should offer a method, an approach, and a perspective about how to contemplate experiences often unthinkable in the course of most everyday lives. Whatever the experience: the holocaust of six million persons based on racial, ethnic, cognitive ability or sexual orientation categories; a tribal war based on ethnicity in the African landscaped of Rwanda; or a civil war in a new nation-state, combining two political economies in one country, a political situation so complicated, so enmeshed in a long history that brothers fought each other.
The least higher education could do is instruct its community about the culture, law and politics of the Internet. Given its scope and amplification, both as a technology and a historical phenomenon, the Internet has the potential for profound, sometimes explosive, experiences. Ask the victims of gossip sites if you want to know more about how it plays in our colleges and universities. Ask a professor who has surreptitiously been filmed and had the video go viral. Ask administrators how they handle less than happy reputations for their institutions once something negative hits Facebook or YouTube. As users of services who feel stalked by targeted advertising due to data-mining of which they were not even aware was occurring.
Higher education has the relatively unique opportunity to ask difficult questions in a safe place to contemplate responses. It is an honor to ask of young people, whose hearts, minds and spirits are in formation, those questions; it is a privilege to participate in those moments with them. And it must be done with the Internet in mind because it is so obviously the world in which we all live.