I. Why I Chose My Issue
In my final project, I chose to address the controversial firing of Sydney McGee, an art teacher in Texas who was effectively terminated after parents complained that their children viewed nude artworks on a field trip to the Dallas Museum of Art, which Ms. McGee arranged and supervised. As I read the New York Times article âMuseum Trip Deemed Too Revealing,â I felt an almost visceral response. Sydney McGee, I learned, lived in Frisco Texas, and lost her job at Wilma Fisher Elementary School. What disturbed me, as I read, was that she might just as plausibly have lived in my hometown of Bigfork, Montana, and lost her job at Bigfork Elementary School (or Bigfork High School, for that matter). Bigfork is home to a sizable, vocal minority of devout Christians and Mormons whose power and influence in my high school I deeply resented. For instance, in Advanced Biology, my teacher refused to teach evolutionary theory due to his fear of parental backlash. I realized that the anger and frustration I felt as I read the article was directed at the parents and school administrators of my insular, devoutly Christian community as much as it was at the parents and school administrators of Frisco.
Despite the initial disgust and resentment that this incident inspired in me, I realized that this issue also presented me with a particularly good opportunity to engage in empathic argument. In a strange way, as a teenager, I had learned to hate their social and political views, yet to accept them as neighbors, friends, and even lovers. And I have always felt defensive about my little town, as if those who did not experience Bigfork had no right to comment on it, even though their opinions and criticisms might be identical to my own. Somehow, I had never squared these feelings of opposition, resentment, friendship, and protectiveness. As I continued to think about this issue and this project, it dawned on me that, despite my close association with these people, I had never attempted to speak to them empathically about issues that really mattered. This project, I reasoned, might give me a chance to do just that.
II. Expression in a Cyber Medium
I have written a script for a South Park short dealing with this issue and posted it on a wiki for feedback and user contribution and discussion. Using a wiki as a medium for the script forced me to confront a number of issues, both technological and personal. I have always felt technologically incompetent. My prior experience in using cyber media was limited to writing emails, browsing internet sites, and a placing a couple of very small posts on the Evidence wiki. Given how daunting I found the Scratch project and our isolated forays into Second Life, one can imagine how intimidated I was by the technical aspects of this project. This project forced me to learn, through an extended process of trial and error, how to use wiki language, to consider how the wiki should have be constructed architecturally, and to consider what will provide the user with the best and most comfortable experience. Only having completed the wiki do I realize how much thought goes into even the small details, like deciding how many navigation options to give the user in going from one page of the project to other pages.
However, the personal issues I was forced to confront in completing this project were far more difficult than the technological ones. In many ways, I dread the openness and publicity of the cyber environment, viewing it as a threat to my privacy and an invitation to be humiliated publicly. Furthermore, I have an extremely low opinion of my writing and a truly dismal opinion of my creative writing. To make this piece of highly personal, creative writing available to my classmates, to the extension school participants, and to the world as a whole was utterly nerve-wracking. My anxiety was only heightened by the realization that other peopleâs criticisms of my work would be completely visible to the public as well on the wikiâs discussion page.
To some extent, however, this fear has been assuaged by the participatory nature of the wiki medium. Those who criticize are invited to make improvements; if they fail to do so, the dissatisfactory nature of the work is as much their own responsibility as it is mine. That this script will eventually evolve into the product of many individualsâ intellect and talents heightens the diffusion of responsibility. More importantly, the experience of receiving feedback memos on my in-class presentation demonstrated to me that those whose opinions count most to me, the participants in CyberOne, are overwhelmingly respectful and thoughtful.
III. Reflections on the Project in the Context of the Class
In attempting to write an empathic South Park episode, I found that using humor in the context of empathic argument is extremely tricky. Many of the examples of successful uses of the Court of Public Opinion that we have discussed in CyberOne, such as the Daily Show, the Colbert Report, and the âAsk a Ninjaâ clip, have been extremely humorous and entertaining. That entertainment value gives them a great deal more traction in the Court of Public Opinion. They draw the public in, inform them, perhaps even impart radically subversive ideas, while avoiding heavy-handedness and preachiness.
However, in writing my script, it seemed that humor was also often incompatible with empathy. To me, South Parkâs brilliance is in its merciless treatment of every side of an issue. The first side is rendered as absurd and hypocritical, so we naturally identify with the opposing side, generally out of a desire to dissociate from those being lampooned. But the cartoon makes a second move, skewering those with whom we have now sided, demanding that we view the idiocy that may underlie every side of the argument. In the end, the cartoon takes away our security in joining one side or the other, and forces us to make our own choices. The process is intensely fun and often provocative, but I do not find it particularly empathic.
For the purposes of this project, I had to stray from the South Park formula I so love, by both adding and subtracting. I had to add a sense of sincerity that, while it exists in brief snatches in the real South Park, is rarely sustained long enough to create a genuine feeling of empathy. On the other hand, I had to take out the traditional South Park âdouble moveâ that is so delightfully unsettling and replace it with a more compassionate treatment of both sides. Perhaps there is room for growth in this, though. Professor Nesson has suggested in class that empathy need not be weak or wishy-washy. I am sure that it also need not be humorless. But to make it humorous is a task that I have started on in this project. I cannot claim to have pulled it off perfectly, but it is a promising step, the first in what seems like a potentially endless series of explorations into the possibilities of this rhetorical form.