Libel via YouTube

What's it like to be the Shirley Sherrod of your university? Karl Walling shares his experience and offers suggestions for higher education.

August 10, 2010

Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing reveals the ways in which malicious and unfounded accusations can destroy lives, friendships, families, and institutions, including academic and military ones. During her wedding ceremony, a bride’s fiancé falsely accused her of prior promiscuity. The fiancé and his lord believed they had seen the evidence of the bride’s infidelity with their own eyes, but the evidence had been cooked by the lord’s bastard brother, who staged a misleading scene to deceive them. Besides destroying the wedding and humiliating the innocent bride, the slander led to dissension within the state and the army. It took a fool who proudly called himself an “ass“ to bring the unfounded accusation to the attention of the authorities, the fiancé, and the lord. They exemplified virtue by acknowledging and repenting their overreaction to the false accusation, thus leading to a happy ending believable only in romantic comedy. All’s well that ends well in comedy, so in this case the false accusation was indeed much ado about nothing.

But that is not always the case. Scott Jaschik’s Inside Higher Ed article, “YouTube and Context,” makes clear I was falsely accused of advocating rape in a lecture I gave on Joseph Conrad and Nicollo Machiavelli at the annual ethics conference at the U.S. Naval War College this past May. The accusation occurred via the Internet on YouTube. A sound and video bite of a little over three minutes from my lecture was posted under the headline, “Naval War College Professor Advocates Rape.” Within a few days, over two thousand viewers saw the clip, which soon attracted the attention of the Pentagon and Congress.

The only problem is that I never advocated rape, which would be crazy in any forum, especially an academic one, and most especially a military one. When an accusation sounds too crazy to believe, look again. Gender-related sensitivities in the American military going at least as far back as the infamous Navy pilots’ Tailhook groping scandal make leaders extremely careful to avoid giving offense to anyone. And indeed, I was not speaking in my own name. Instead, as revealed in the full transcript of my remarks, I was revealing why Machiavelli deserves his infamy as a “teacher of evil” because he did indeed advocate the rape not of women, but of the peoples and countries his ideal leader would subjugate. Hence the title of one of the most insightful books on Machiavelli today, Machiavelli’s Rapacious Republicanism, by an old acquaintance of mine from graduate school, the brilliant Austrian scholar, Markus Fischer.

Interpretation is not advocacy. I was interpreting Machiavelli, not advocating Machiavellianism. The person who posted the clip either did not know the difference, in which case he or she was not prepared intellectually for the thoughtful discussions of any academic institution, or did not care, in which case the individual defamed not merely me, but also my institution by deliberately taking my words out of context. As one of my senior colleagues has remarked, the YouTube post was "an act of cyberterrorism not merely against Karl Walling, but the War College itself."

Such libels are bound to be increasingly common in the YouTube age and a threat to any professor in the classroom. Any one of us could be next. How can we speak freely if we must fear that any student might post distortions of our remarks on the Internet? Can we allow video vigilantes to incite mobs in the university? Can administrators be intimidated by the vigilantes and still retain the trust and respect of faculty? Don't forget that a significant portion of world opinion believes that the lamentable events of 11 September 2001 were the result of a conspiracy in the Bush administration, or Israel, or any of a number of the usual scapegoats on libelous Internet websites, not the work of Al Qaeda. This despite the fact that Al Qaeda has claimed credit for the attack! How can we prevent the cyberterrorists from winning?

Because this is the first time my institution has had to deal with this rising threat to any academic institution, it made several rookie mistakes in handling it, but it should be those mistakes, not the individuals who made them or the institution itself, that are the issue now. My institution may be the most intellectually happening place in the American military, but we are all rookies with Internet libel. We have a common enemy in those who would attack the academy with the Internet equivalent of scribblings on bathroom walls. What can academic institutions do to prevent such mistakes in the future?

Both common sense and common courtesy would dictate informing a professor about a potentially scandalous Internet clip from his or her lecture, seminar, or other professional work, and asking for an explanation before demanding an apology or taking disciplinary action. Especially in light of the Shirley Sherrod incident, in which a conservative blogger defamed a member of the Obama administration by deliberately posting a clip from her remarks that made her seem to say the opposite of what she intended and actually said, prudence would dictate a careful investigation of the facts, including a transcript when it is available, before making hasty judgments.

Much against my own judgment, under heavy pressure, and before I saw the YouTube clip, I did issue a tepid apology, the gist of which was blame Machiavelli, not me. He after all was the one who used rape as a metaphor for leadership. Discerning members of the audience understood this, but this sensationalist farce acquired an unstoppable momentum of its own. That YouTube, since the publication of Scott Jaschik’s article, but also perhaps through requests from my institution, has withdrawn the libelous video from its site is no great consolation. The post generated at least a dozen other articles and two television stories. The effects of this false accusation will endure as long as they remain on the Internet and are unrefuted. Hence, when the facts are finally known, when they reveal the accuser has distorted a professor’s words to make him or her appear to say exactly the opposite of what the professor intended, and actually said, make the facts known widely and publicly. Just do the right thing, as the Obama administration did when it acknowledged Shirley Sherrod had been defamed.

Shirley Sherrod knows the name of her accuser, whom she reportedly intends to sue. My accuser used an anonymous e-mail address. My institution apparently has no conclusive evidence to identity him or her yet, and may never acquire it, so some thought needs to be given to how to deter libel when anonymous e-mail addresses may make posters unaccountable.

As often happens in moments of hysteria, it is sometimes tempting to blame the victim. I used the word “bitch” twice in my remarks: once in depicting the mindset of a rapist; the other time in portraying the victim’s likely attitude toward her rapist. So I was reprimanded for using offensive language, though it is not my words, but Machiavelli’s view of leadership that is truly offensive. Rape is a common metaphor for conquest and tyranny. As revealed in Chapter 25 of The Prince, in one of the most famous passages in Renaissance literature and philosophy, Machiavelli used the metaphor of the rape of poor Fortuna to reduce politics to war and war to crime. The word hubris, often translated as overweening pride, that is a common theme not merely of tragedy, but also of strategy, stems from a Greek word for rape, with hubristic characters depicted as having lost all sense of limits. Machiavelli challenged the philosophy and religion of his time by questioning whether there can be any ethical limits to strategic thought and action. Unless conferences on professional military ethics are to be mere Sunday school exercises, that question deserves serious attention from those engaged in unconventional wars, in which the customary limits of war come frequently into dispute. What better way to reveal what is most shocking in Machiavelli than to use language that approaches the limit of what is considered acceptable in our time?

It would take the comic genius of Tom Wolfe to explain how my critique of Machiavelli was twisted into the advocacy of the very crime for which I was indicting him. Not merely feminists (who can easily find at least a hundred articles on Machiavelli and feminism with a quick web search), but all decent minds should turn their anger on Machiavelli, not me, while recognizing that he was also a political and military genius, the sort both insurgents and counterinsurgents, terrorists and counterterrorists have much to learn from today. With the United States bogged down in two counterinsurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, understanding Machiavelli could prove very useful, if only for learning to think like our worst enemies. How can we learn from evil geniuses without becoming like our own worst enemies? That was one of the big questions of my lecture. That it was obscured by a reckless vigilante is a terrible, terrible pity.

It will take careful thought to save academics from this sort of outrage in the future. It will require a mix of technological, ethical, and institutional fixes. I do not believe it is possible any longer for individuals at my institution to post clips of lectures from its video archives without permission. So there is now a gatekeeper, though perhaps at the regrettable price that recordings of important lectures will be less freely available in the future. Whether gatekeepers are worth this price needs to be examined carefully. It may depend on circumstances.

Since anyone with a cell phone could commit the same offense, technological fixes of institutionally-controlled Internet systems will certainly not be enough. The most unsung heroes of colleges and universities are those who teach English composition. Just as they do (or should) teach rules of evidence for written citations, so too ought they teach students to apply those same rules to video citations, with students warned that plagiarism, deliberate distortions, misleading quotations, and the like are not merely unethical, but may also put them in serious legal jeopardy. My institution does not have a faculty senate, but it surely needed one in this instance to slow down the rush to judgment. Institutions that already have faculty senates might assign Internet libel cases to committees within them, which would serve both the dignity of those institutions and the rights of the accused by providing some form of due process.

And one other thing. Professors teaching Shakespeare might use Much Ado About Nothing to get students to think about why libel is a serious problem, which will help them understand why the thoughtfulness induced by careful reading of old books is relevant to our so-called information age, and perhaps our only salvation from the snap judgments that age frequently induces. Such thoughtfulness is the aim of my teaching, which, with a little drama now and then, has helped me turn on more than a few light bulbs. It would be a crime to let the cyberterrorists turn out the lights of the academy.


Karl Walling is a professor of strategy at the United States Naval War College.


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