Tuesday, April 17, 2007

In a Time of Tragedy, President Levin Essentializes and Dehumanizes

This was the letter first sent by President Levin to the President of Virginia Tech, a campus now in a state of shock and despair after yesterday's shooting tragedy, and later forwarded to the entire Yale community:

Dear President Steger:

The entire world looks on with compassion for the terrible ordeal that your campus suffered today. Those of us in universities feel most especially the fragility of our communities, and their vulnerability to those who do not live by our values of civility and respect for others. I send you personally my warmest sympathy, and I hasten to offer any help that I or Yale University might provide.

With deepest condolences for those you have lost,

Rick Levin
President, Yale University

Thank you for employing such neo-con rhetoric, President Levin - that same type of distorted Manichean language that has allowed for intellectual defenses of horrific, historic crimes against the Other (colonization, invasion of Iraq). Certainly, it is "our values" - unique to the rest of the World - that lead us to condemn murder so strongly.

Thank you also for dehumanizing an individual who obviously had some sort of problem. Here, we have a man whose daily interactions with people must have made him felt as if he were not of this world, and, even in his death, you feel the need to posit him as an aberration to all that is decent. As no culture condones the slaughter of innocent people, such comments are really necessary...

This attack should tell us nothing other than that a crazed foreigner went on a rampage. It is certainly not indicative of the need for gun regulation. Clearly, it is not symptomatic of a culture that glorifies violent masculinity. After all, the gunment isn't like "us"; he's not human. Only with such disgusting logic would it be acceptable for the New York Times, which yesterday was stating 33 people had been killed, to write that 32 people and the gunman had been killed . A human life lost, but, inexplicably, to the New York Times and President Levin, it is as if he were not a victim.


Joshua said...

Melay and I were just talking about how this e-mail was a huge problem! Thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

The killer obviously did not live by the same values of most people in the university community. In his note he said, "you caused me to do this."(http://www.cnn.com/2007/US/04/17/vtech.shooting/index.html) I don't think gunning down 32 people is a part of my, or most people's, moral code, no matter how much stress they may be under as a college student, and I applaud President Leviin's sympathies towards the VT community. The shooter was different from the typical student, not less human, and that's all President Levin was saying.

Naima said...

brother andom, i too believe fully in the humanity of the gunman. i agree that his psychology and actions were shaped by his experience in this world and his unique positioning in society. however, as he was a victim of violence (whether bodily, spiritual, economic, or otherwise), he was also an agent of harm. while his behavior is comprehensible, it is not excusable: he had agency.

now that so many (the gunman, of course, included) have been hurt, lost, and broken by this tragedy (and surely long before), we must pray for healing and work for a more just society that values human life and dignity.

Anonymous said...

Andom this is a really thought-provoking post.

I only question whether Levin's wording would have been different if the shooter had not been Korean American. I supsect actually that the wording would -not- have been different; he would still be an "other" even if he were white as can be. I think that's because American leadership refuses to accept its role, and our culture's role, in these kind of events-- so the perpetrators are always "others." It's just even more convenient if they look a little different.

Witness Bush's immediate comments defending lenient gun laws. Guns are fine in "civilized society;" this man was just the rare outsider. I think that's a warped, denialist view.

Elizabeth said...

the video that he sent to nbc, intended for public viewing as a critique of excess social life in america (he talks about extravagant wealth, etc. ) is esp. interesting in light of what pres. levin calls those "who do not live by our values of civility and respect for others".
i am also very troubled by these repeated acts of mass violence on school campuses - what does it signify about the culture of academics, the character of university life that these acts of violence occur not against those who ostensibly have power to direct american economic/political life but against students, we who are learning the ways of the world and sustaining them? thoughts...

Anonymous said...

two points:
1) why do you read a racial undertone into Levin's letter? it was sent (to VA Tech) before the killer's identity was public knowledge.
2) to naima's and manteca's post: he was clearly mentally ill -- his struggle was not just social, it was medical and biological. while being radically suicidal certainly has environmental factors, that sort of chronic depression has chemical origin. to say that he was a victim of his socio-ethnic-economic circumstance or, as naima said, "his unique positioning in society" is both to imply that everyone in his position (being lower-income or first generation) is potentially liable to snap, and to discount the traumatic reality of mental illness. Implying that depression is something society inflicts on you is to imply that depression is somehow your fault for not being able to cope; that's not true. while he had agency in murdering people, he didn't have agency in being sick.

Unknown said...

I really didn't read any racial bias into Levin's letter. while it borrows neo-con language, I think more accurately it was a statement that killers have a different concept about the value of life that the rest of us, regardless of nationality or ethnicity.

However, I am disturbed by the headlines that seem to deny that that Cho was also a person who died on Monday. If I give newspapers the benefit of doubt I would suggest that it is newsworthy that the gunman died, and it has a different meaning than the other victims. but that is a big "if".

Naima said...

mental illness is surely traumatic and i would not argue that it is a medical and biological condition. nonetheless, a few notes anonymous:

studies have shown that poverty is a major risk factor for major depressive disorder.

different cultures perceive mental illness differently: depending on one's background, one runs a different risk of being stigmatized for a condition. this affects the rates at which people of different backgrounds seek the professional and medical help they may need. of course, economic resources also play a factor in whether one is able to acquire professional help.

and finally, i believe factors such as greater health burdens amongst minority groups are said to be reasons why "major depression and factors associated with depression were more frequent among members of minority groups than among whites."


i will not suggest the ways in which these couple of truths may or may not directly apply to Cho's life. however, i think they are helpful in considering how depression is not a condition that exists and is not disengaged from one's economic, social, and familial experiences.

Anonymous said...

I think that taking the latter half of the sentence without the first half is taking it out of context. "Those of us in universities feel most especially the fragility of our communities..." I think this part is particularly important to keep in mind before delving into the other half of the sentence, "...and their vulnerability to those who do not live by our values of civility and respect for others." Most universities tend to be pretty liberal places of mutual respect and tolerance. When I read the phrase "our values", the values of the academic community are what immediately came to mind for me. Heartlessly murdering 32 people as a social critique is simply not one of them. It's not along the same lines, but I object to the classification the shooter as a foreigner. I know that technically he is and maybe his depression and frustration stemmed from his family's immigrant struggle in the U.S., but he lived here for over 10 years. I think the media, not President Levin, is hyperbolizing this point to evoke American nationalism and perpetuate ignorance and hatred.