April 20, 2012

Going overboard on overheard

“Overhead at UChicago” Facebook page can sometimes reflect a troubling lack of consideration for others.

Overheard on the quad: “Sorry, man—why don’t you just eat some fruit or some shit?”

Instantly, I felt my “Overheard at UChicago” senses tingling. How many “likes” would that post get? Would it be enough to make it worth posting? Or would it just sit there on the page, overlooked in favor of different puns about poop—namely those about the Pierce toilets?

Then I thought about how earnest the person who had said it had looked. It’s not as if I have any idea whatsoever of what he was referring to. Maybe one of them has a really serious nutritional problem. The person being addressed obviously knew that his friend wasn’t offering him the option of eating fruit or feces. Traditional definitions of the word “shit” aside, all I had done was come across a snippet of conversation and, without any knowledge of context, taken it for an odd comment.

Let’s say I had posted the quotation though. Maybe some people would have given it a “like” on Facebook. It would hardly be the first instance of an out-of-context quotation being held up as an example of linguistic absurdity at the U of C. Recently, many of my visits to the “Overheard” group have not been filled with laughter about the funny things professors say or the jokes about philosophers that characterize this school’s sense of humor. It seems those types of posts have been superseded by judgmental quips about other people’s behavior, language, etc. And I will freely admit that I have taken plenty of quotes out of context myself, both in items I have posted and things I have laughed about. Still, I think that maybe we all ought to take these quotations with a grain of salt. Give the people being quoted the benefit of the doubt. In all likelihood, what they said made plenty of sense to them.

I remember the complaint that one of my friends has always had about “Overheard at UChicago”—that one shouldn’t judge the quoted people for the things posted on the group because “it probably made sense in context!” I think she’s at least partially correct. It’s true that an outsider can have no idea how a conversation led to the few words that get posted. There is definitely something important to be said for trying to understand a situation before mocking parts of it out of context. Too often, we jump to conclusions about people and what they say without making an attempt to understand them first.

There was an advertising campaign for Ameriquest a couple of years ago that illustrated the danger of hasty conclusions: People were shown going about some everyday activity but then accidentally ending up in a situation in which things looked very different from the way they began. There was one in which a woman on an airplane tries to move from her window seat to the bathroom, and is forced in the process to step over the man sleeping in the seat next to hers. When she is halfway over the man, a sudden bit of turbulence causes her to fall into the man’s lap, at which point he wakes up. The commercial ended with a warning: “Don’t judge too quickly.”

Sometimes I feel like that reminder ought to be written across the top of the “Overheard at UChicago” page. Sure, there are some posts that are truly funny—the posts recording conversations written in bathroom stalls about God and Nietzsche, for example—but some are definitely more likely than others to be examples not of humorous discourse, but rather of blatant mockery of someone’s sincere words.

Sometimes things out of context are funny purely because they allow us to imagine how a situation might have led to the quotation posted. But posts that make fun of someone’s ignorance on some topic that the submitter believes to be essential show that passing judgment on people’s words can very quickly become passing judgment on the people themselves—a far more serious act, bordering on intolerance. And in the setting of “Overheard,” that kind of intolerance can be seen directly beneath each post, in comments that ask how such an ignorant person managed to be accepted to the school, or how the caliber of intelligence at the school is dropping because of people like the one quoted.

Those types of reactions can only ever be damaging. What kind of community views the mistakes or ignorance of others not as learning opportunities, but as ammunition to be used against them? It’s not the kind of thing you’d expect to see at a school like the University of Chicago—an institution that purports to be, and, indeed, prides itself on being, full of bright, diverse, and open-minded scholars.

I’m not trying to preach here. I’m hardly qualified. I just think that maybe we all ought to think before we post. Or, if we do choose to post, we should think before we “like.”

Katie O’Shea is a second-year in the College.