Yet another tale of professorial indiscretion on social media making the rounds prompts me to reiterate what I regard as one of the cardinal benefits of the semiotic approach: viz., that it can lead one beyond the obvious surfaces of cultural phenomena to their more nuanced (and often subtly concealed) significations. And this matters in these days of take-no-prisoners political controversy, as America divides further and further into two hostile camps that can no longer even communicate with each other without invective.
The indiscretion I am referring to involves a Rutgers University history professor's Facebook screed about gentrification in Harlem, which has been widely reported in the mass media, as well as on the news source Inside Higher Education. As IHE reports, Professor James Livingston is in hot water over a post he put up a few months ago. Here's IHE's quotation of the controversial post (warning: salty language ahead):
OK, officially, I now hate white people. I am a white people, for God’s sake, but can we keep them -- us -- us out of my neighborhood? I just went to Harlem Shake on 124 and Lenox for a Classic burger to go, that would be my dinner, and the place is overrun by little Caucasian assholes who know their parents will approve of anything they do. Slide around the floor, you little shithead, sing loudly, you unlikely moron. Do what you want, nobody here is gonna restrict your right to be white. I hereby resign from my race. Fuck these people. Yeah, I know, it’s about my access to dinner. Fuck you, too.
After Facebook deleted the post, Livingston returned with the following (again from IHE):
I just don't want little Caucasians overrunning my life, as they did last night. Please God, remand them to the suburbs, where they and their parents can colonize every restaurant, all while pretending that the idiotic indulgence of their privilege signifies cosmopolitan -- you know, as in sophisticated "European" -- commitments.
OK, to start with, I do not intend to get involved in any way with the obvious (right there on the surface) political elements in this saga of a white professor's denunciation of the white patrons (and their children) at a Harlem eatery. I also do not want to argue the free speech implications of the matter. Everyone else is doing that already. Rather (and I hope my readers at Bedford Bits will appreciate my focus), I want to look at an important rhetorical element in the story that not only is being disregarded but is being misconstrued as well. Call what follows an exercise in "rhetorical semiotics," if you will.
To begin with, the reactions to Livingston's posts have parsed exactly how you would expect them to: conservative media (and individuals) have (to put it quite mildly) denounced Professor Livingston, accusing him of racism, while more liberal voices tend to emphasize that what he wrote is protected free speech. Well and good: we can expect such disagreements. But what really caught my attention is the claim, both from the reporter of the story and from a number of the comments that follow, that Livingston was clearly being satirical. First, the IHE reporter: "Right-wing media and Rutgers University didn't find Livingston's satire very funny." A number of the comments to the story took it for granted that the posts were satirical too. For example: "Weird reaction to Livingston’s FB posts by almost everyone, including Livingston himself. . . .The charge of racism requires taking literally what is clearly satire."
But is it really "clearly satire?" Consider another comment: "The problem is that so many people in academia are so disconnected from reality that it's not actually clearly satire. Poe's law definitely applies here." Now, Poe's Law is the dictum that things on the Internet are so weird that you can never know for certain whether someone is being ironic or not. And indeed, as another comment observes: "If it's satire then it's really badly done. I don't believe it's actually satire."
Frankly, I think that everyone is chasing the wrong trope. Livingston's second Facebook post, cited above, makes it pretty clear that he means it about his aggravation over urban gentrification. So what I think is involved in the initial post is really hyperbole—that is, the deliberate overstatement of one's case in order to more effectively make a point. Except that in this case that hyperbolic wink was lost on a lot of people, thus further widening the gap between an already miserably polarized society.
Thus my point is that words matter, that they have semiotic as well as semantic significance. If, in the currently highly inflamed environment (the system in which we can situate Professor Livingston's remarks), one wishes to make a political point, one isn't going to make it effectively by using easily misconstrued—not to mention hyperbolic and inflammatory—language (heck, it isn't even immediately clear from the posts that Livingston is mostly complaining about the behavior of little children). If you want your point of view to be politically effective—and, perhaps even more importantly, not backfire—trollish language isn't going to cut it, especially when the keys to the kingdom (i.e., electoral power in America), are ultimately in the hands of that roughly one third of the electorate that identifies as politically "independent," and which is neither clearly on the right nor on the left. If you want them on your side, you can't assume that the language that works inside your socially mediated echo chamber is going to work outside it. So while I fear that it is no longer possible for either "side" today in the great divide to reach the other, it behooves anyone who wants to win over any part of that uncommitted "center" (if we can call it that) to keep in mind that, thanks to the Internet, the whole world is always watching, and weighing, what you say.