By Jennifer Keohane
Approximately three weeks ago, I published an opinion editorial in the Baltimore Sun that was critical of the commencement speaker at my institution’s December graduation ceremony. I felt that as someone who has built a (so far relatively short) career on analyzing public communication and had years of training in doing so, that my response to the speaker might be both enlightening and interesting for readers. I was also acting on a belief that academics need to do more to share their ideas and research with a broader public beyond the university campus. While I knew that my email address was publicly available and that my words were controversial and would likely garner a response, I was unprepared for the onslaught of nasty emails that I received.
I should note from the outset that this post is not intended to be a defense of my original argument, but instead a reflection on some of the responses that I received as they relate to character assassination in the university setting. I have purposely avoided quoting directly from the private communication that I received, as I have not secured permission from the writers to reprint their words.
The negative responses that I received via email (and I would estimate that about 70% of the responses were negative) ranged from reasoned disagreement with my argument to ad hominem attacks. The ad hominem attacks centered on my editorial’s obvious liberal bias and then often degenerated to name-calling, accusing me of being a member of the liberal professoriate hell-bent on indoctrinating my students with my political beliefs. I was accused of having never had to work for anything in my life, being an east coast elitist, and of being an embarrassment to the university at which I teach, among other things.
I have not done a close analysis of the comment section of the opinion editorial as published on the Baltimore Sun’s website. (Truthfully, reading the stuff that folks emailed to me was incredibly painful, so I could not, for my emotional health, subject myself to analyzing the comments.) It seems noteworthy, though, that a great many people chose to assassinate my character in private, via email. In other words, the audience to whom their attacks were addressed was me and only me. While some did mention that they planned to take their grievances against me to the higher administration of my university, I cannot confirm that they did.
We at CARP have in the past defined character assassination as a public attempt to ruin someone’s character. Why might people insist upon using private communication to do this? One hypothesis is that such behavior, even if it does not result in a public smear campaign with an effect beyond private hurt for the target, is cathartic to the speaker.
So what can those interested in character assassination take away from this brief case?
• Character assassinations happens in realms beyond politics and celebrity. One does not need to be famous to find themselves the target of an attack.
• Character assassination is a symptom of polarized politics. Many of the responses that I received were clearly knee-jerk reactions to an argument presented by a liberal speaker.
• Character assassination against academics is also indicative of another social trend: anti-intellectualism. The antagonism toward people with advanced degrees is not a new thing to be sure, but new polling data suggests that a majority of Republicans now think that colleges and universities are bad for the country. Indeed, a number of the responses to my op-ed suggested that I was trumpeting my credentials as a professor.
• The responses to my essay also indicate the ease with which attacks can flow given the speed of mediated communication.
• Finally, we have long pointed to anonymous communication as a harbinger of nasty rhetoric online. At least in the case of private email attacks, that does not seem to be the case. Every email that I received seemed to be from a “legitimate” email address attached to a person’s name. While I did not google to verify that these were real people, I did not receive any emails from obviously “fake” addresses. In other words, people were not shy about attaching their negative comments to their names. They seemingly trusted me to not make their names and words public.
Perhaps weathering such attacks, even if in private, is the price for making political statements and engaging in local politics these days. And while many of the emails I received were very hurtful, I stand by my original desire to speak my mind about something that was important to me.