April 27, 2012

Letter: Overheard at UChicago founder responds to criticism

As creator and sole moderator of the Overheard at UChicago Facebook group, I felt an obligation to respond to the recent op-ed, “Going Overboard on Overheard.” I will defend the group but avoid lecturing on the theory of humor, leaving that to Ted Cohen, whose class I highly recommend. I won’t waste anyone’s time explaining why the content of the group is funny, just that it is, and that should be enough.

The author of the article frets that posts in the group might be in bad taste because full context and intent are purposefully excluded or distorted. Well, I’m happy to report that at least she grasped the concept of the group. Since when have true intent and context been necessary for something to be rightfully funny? Would anything even be funny anymore?

Even if someone were successful in making the case that out-of-context quotes (for the sake of humor, not to win an argument) are cruel and unfair to identified speakers, this would not be a reasonable criticism in this case, since Overheard at UChicago is strictly anonymous. To that end, it’s not even possible to reach Student A, Student B, Parent, Child, and “Prospie”—regulars quoted in the group—for comment on the matter. A joke with a hypothetically fictional character must be the least base form of mockery.

The article begins with something the author overheard: “Sorry man—why don’t you just eat some fruit or some shit.” Now that is funny! Without consideration for the diagnosis of a “really serious nutritional problem” that the author completely invented for the recipient of that comment, I am laughing out loud. For all intents and purposes, the quote could never have been said. Nonetheless, here I am laughing as I ponder in what sort of situation “fruit” and “shit” are acceptable edible substitutes.

There are topics that are legitimately inappropriate, but Facebook censors those. I intervene on comment threads that become too politically or emotionally charged, but beside that, the group is self-governed. And, to this day, no one has ever contacted me complaining that a posted quote has personally offended her.

I suggest that everyone browse the group and take the quotes and comments not as “ammunition,” but rather as expressions of our school’s distinct personality. I promise that one’s time at the College will be made more enjoyable if you are able to laugh, lightheartedly and guiltlessly, at these unattributed quotes. Hopefully, one day each of us will be able to laugh at the silly-sounding things we say ourselves as well.

Richard Grenis is a graduate of the College in the Class of 2010.