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With the indulgence of Nightlife’s great readers, I’d like to comment on a local incident about whic
Chris Wissmann

With the indulgence of Nightlife’s great readers, I’d like to comment on a local incident about which I’ve tried to remain ignorant, for reasons I’ll explain in a moment.

Several media sources reported that after the November 8 election, white SIU students in blackface made a video while standing in front of a Confederate flag and promoting Donald Trump’s presidential victory. Or maybe they were in a photo on a Facebook post. Those details don’t really matter here.

Whether it was a sincere expression of racism or a morally indefensible, poorly executed exercise in parody I’m in no position to say. Because either way, I figured the kids in question were looking for attention. They didn’t deserve it and I didn’t want to give them mine, so I didn’t watch the video or see the post or whatever it was. I didn’t read, watch, or listen to any news accounts about it except in the most cursory way— even so, however, the angry responses were impossible to miss.

But if the SIU students in question were making satire, the basic scenario reminded me of when I was in high school up north. Back in 1985 or so, a younger child tragically died from liver cancer. A local school-board candidate sent out a campaign letter to everyone in the district. Not only was his missive barely literate, not only were the pages misnumbered, the candidate, apropos of nothing to do with the school system, tastelessly tried to turn the child’s death into some sort of political issue on which he tried to capitalize.

I wrote a parody of that campaign letter in the school computer lab, numbering the pages incorrectly and deliberately aping the candidate’s pathetic failures with English grammar. I also made some sort of intentionally insensitive reference to a dead kid helping “me” in the campaign.

My teacher promptly took it away. And he made copies.

To the extent that something like that could go viral before the internet, this kind of did. People who I didn’t know wound up telling me they loved it. I heard that it wound up on the bulletin boards of all the teachers’ lounges in the district. For a spell there, my teachers, who seemed unanimous in their hatred of the candidate, felt a little less disgusted by my smart-assed presence in their classrooms.

The candidate was doomed anyway, but I felt as if I contributed a bit to his spanking in the election.

In fact, I felt more than a little smug about my pre-Onion masterpiece.

Then the late child’s older brother— a senior when I was just a freshman, if memory serves, and a much bigger kid than I was— approached me in the school hallway.

“Wissmann! That letter you wrote?”

Uh-oh. It suddenly dawned on me that while the school-board candidate was an asshole for trying to turn a child’s death to his political advantage, maybe I wasn’t a whole lot better for making that tragedy into fodder for comedy. Maybe I had unintentionally picked at his family’s emotional scabs. I hadn’t given any thought to those possibilities before I wrote what I did or (somewhat involuntarily) let it out into the world.

“I just wanted to thank you for that,” the guy said, smiling. He added that his whole family appreciated it.

“Really?” I asked, full of equal parts apprehension and relief. “Are you sure?”

“Yeah,” he replied. We proceeded to have a short, friendly conversation, the only interaction I remember us having, and then went our own ways.

Better lucky than good, I dodged a bullet.

Those SIU students, judging by the outraged reactions they received, were not so fortunate.

Hopefully I learned a lesson about trying harder to predict the inadvertent consequences of what I write for mass consumption and what I say in public. Hopefully I’ve grown more careful, more sensitive, about how I tackle subjects on which I opine and about my word choices.

I admit I don’t always remain mindful of my first experience with mass media, such as it was, in high school, and when that’s the case I’m always more likely to hurt unintended targets.

Unfortunately, far too often we learn these lessons the hard way, through trial— and errors (like appearing in blackface, which is difficult to justify in any context, including satire). The mistakes are easier to make and the consequences much more serious these days, with the internet providing a potential worldwide audience for what we produce. If we have First Amendment rights to disseminate nearly anything we want, we can’t forget the responsibilities— moral if not legal— that come with them.

 

Maybe, however, we can all learn from history— this community’s more recent and my more distant examples— and think just a little bit more about how others will receive our messages before we hit the Send or Publish buttons and broadcast our thoughts to the entire planet.