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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University March 7, 2005 | Vol. 34 No. 25
Thinking Out Loud

William R. Brody

By William R. Brody

"Primal Screaming E-Mail Therapy"

Someday, I will get around to writing that book on my to-do list: E-mails to the President. What with the magic of instant electronic communication, people in senior positions are more accessible to a wider group of constituents than ever before. The results are not always pretty. E-mail started out as a great way to stay in touch. But over the past few years, it seems as if electronic communication has been transformed from dialogue into diatribe.

Consider my subject matter for chapter one, which I plan to title "I Believe in Freedom of Speech, BUT ... ." Most of this chapter will consist of samples of e-mails that I receive pretty much on a daily basis. For example, whenever we have an outside speaker coming to campus, I get a barrage of messages like the following:

Dear Dr. Brody,

I believe in freedom of speech, but ... how could you allow your university to be a forum for Professor Blitzfitz from the Center for Socially Unacceptable Behavior???!! His presentation will be so biased, it threatens national security, world peace and the economic viability of the church of Rev. Revenues. You should be ashamed to allow the babblings of such a cretin, and, henceforth, I am canceling all of my contributions to your university!

Yours truly,
Sam Spade

cc: The New York Times
Mayor Michael Bloomberg

The following week, the Rev. Revenues was a guest speaker at the same seminar series. Of course, neither Sam Spade nor any of his cohorts lauded the university for presenting views favorable to their position. Here is a sample of what I did receive instead:

My Dear President Brody:

How could The Johns Hopkins University allow, in good conscience, the Rev. Revenue to use the university as a bully pulpit for his malicious dogma?! I believe in freedom of speech, but this time you have gone too far. I had planned to make a large donation to Hopkins, but since you obviously condone the teachings of this rogue character, your university is off my list!!!

May your soul rot in h-e-double toothpicks,
Suzy Diamond

cc: Christianity Today
The Pope

Free speech on university campuses always begets controversy, sometimes rising to front-page national news when provoked by a particularly incendiary speaker like Ward Churchill. Whether the speaker is a faculty member at the host institution or not, universities have always provided an open forum for ideas. Now, events at Columbia and the University of Colorado have again stirred the debate as to whether there are, or should be, boundaries to the free expression of ideas.

What does not seem to be drawing attention is the shrillness of debate about free speech, which has come to resemble something like primal scream therapy. As one of my colleagues, a president of a large public research university, exclaimed to me: "Bill, we have become a nation of screamers!" With half the voices coming from the far left, and the other half from the far right, it sometimes seems being a university president that you are the only one left in the middle. On a graph, the distribution of views presented in these e-mails looks more and more like a dumbbell, which, ironically, is the term by which many of the senders tend to address me. Finding myself on the receiving end of all this reminds me of the old saw about how statistics belie reality — there is a man with his head in the freezer and his feet in the oven, but his average body temperature is 98.6. I can identify with that.

Consider the spate of e-mails I received when Sen. Ted Kennedy spoke recently at Hopkins about the war in Iraq. They were the same "I believe in freedom of speech, but ... " messages, this time wondering how we could countenance the treasonous outpourings of a U.S. senator. Now, there are lots of things that the good senator from Massachusetts says with which I personally do not agree; however, I am completely perplexed why these e-mailers chose to spit venom on the university for allowing the speech of a duly elected public official. Why not, for heaven's sake, send the e-mail message directly to the senator, or write a letter protesting his speech to The Boston Globe? But no, somehow it's all the university's fault.

Commencement speakers, usually selected not by the administration but by our students, also put the president in the hot seat. No matter who is chosen, I get e-mails chastising me for such an unfortunate choice: too liberal or too conservative, too flamboyant, too serious, too controversial or too bland. At Hopkins, each division has its own commencement speaker. Not long ago, one division invited a Republican administration official to speak, and soon I had dozens of screaming e-mails in my inbox. Of course, the official chose not to accept the invitation, but the "damage to the university's reputation," I was told, was already done. Another year, a very senior Democratic leader was invited, and — guess what — there were more e-mails to the president in violent protest.

When I lived in Italy, I once went to Rome and asked someone on the street corner for directions to the Colosseum, in an Italian that was less than optimal. The volume of the response I received in pidgin English-Italian got louder and louder as the directions became more and more complicated, as if increasing volume somehow increases comprehension. So it has become with e-mail messages of dissent. Apparently, the shriller the message, the better to be heard. E-mail shouting has become the 21st-century incarnation of primal scream therapy: If yelling a little feels good, then screaming your head off will feel much, much better. Liberal/conservative, red state/blue state, Palestinian/Zionist, fundamentalist/atheist, our approach to any challenging issue is as bipolar as a serious psychiatric disorder. Where in our thinking can we make room for voices of moderation, middle-of-the-roaders, for finding common ground while at the same time allowing space for the extremes to be heard without being shouted down?

The answer, apparently, lies not within ourselves but in the Ethernet: Blog on, blog on, blog on!


William R. Brody is president of The Johns Hopkins University.


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