Towards A YouTube Ethics
May 2, 2008
I recently read on Thinking at the Interface about grad students at Iowa putting videos on YouTube about their working conditions. Then—no surprise—the English Department chair called the “director of the videos to a meeting with other senior faculty members and asked for the videos to be removed from YouTube.” Although I wrote recently (with some disdain) about when I was asked by the Washington Post to analyze the viral YouTube video of cuckolded socialite wife (Tricia Walsh-Smith) who used YouTube to air her dirty relational, sexual and financial laundry during a heated divorce, the graduate students’ use, also from the bottom side of a historic power dynamic, also revealing the unspoken (and unspeakable) economic abuse that allows large institutions to operate seems somehow less sordid. Or is it?
It does seem crucial to begin to name what can vs what should be revealed through this global open mic. Those with little access to power, media attention, and the protections afforded by capital have never been able to so easily and widely express their critique of power. Is it okay to use YouTube to expose the private financial details of a marriage or the private financial relations of a University? Why should these be private? What of the penis size of a spouse, or the class load of a T.A.? What if you’re drunk, lying or parodying when you do it?
The “English TA Experience” Page on Facebook runs a chain of emails between the chair and the students, and is introduced by an email “in defense of free speech,” by Neal Bowers, Distinguished Professor of Liberal Arts & Sciences, Professor of English, Iowa State University who writes: “Mostly in private, and in collusion with his administrative staff–Dave Roberts, Connie Post, and Barb Blakely–Charlie has forced one of our graduate students to remove a posting from YouTube. He has accomplished this by meeting individually with various graduate students and, through an apparent process of intimidation, bullying them into surrendering one of their basic rights….He justifies his actions by claiming the YouTube video contained objectionable material and subjected the department and the university to legal action. He also appeals to the need for fewer rights (just like Homeland Security and George W. Bush, only instead of saying in our “post-9/11 world” Charlie alludes to the “post Virginia Tech World of campus violence”).”
Of course censorship haunts this discussion, as it does all of YouTube (and the AIDS art world I’ve been discussing here as well). It’s easy to censor on YouTube: users do it all the time. When a video troubles you, you flag it. Enough flags, down it goes. Censorship is always the first (and devastating) move of institutional power against its fears of the many it keeps in check. It also marks the place of transgressions. All the videos discussed in this blog have been taken down.
“For purposes of the First Amendment, and the values of intellectual freedom that it embodies, freedom of speech necessarily includes the right to read, view, hear, and think about the expression of others.” Marjorie Heins, Not in Front of the Children: “Indecency,” Censorship and the Innocence of Youth
“Freedom to differ is not limited to things that do not matter much. That would be a mere shadow of freedom. The test of its substance is the right to differ as to things that touch the heart of the existing order.” Justice Robert H. Jackson