Rutgers University lecturer Kevin Allred tweeted,
“Will the 2nd amendment be as cool when i buy a gun and start shooting at random white people or no…?”
His defenders, and of course Allred, say that his tweet was just a rhetorical question to make a point. The University says that he left them no choice, or no good ones, anyway.
They both are right. This is what comes of being in Ethics Zugswang, when one is thrust into a position where no course of action is fully responsible, fair, and ethical.
The university decided that it could not responsibly assume that the tweet was benign and not a threat. What if the school did nothing, and Allred then took high ground and became Charles Whitman 2016? Having him arrested, however, looks unfair and like a punitive reaction to free speech. There was literally no course the university could take that was completely ethical. Rutgers sacrificed its teacher’s dignity for the safety of the students and to protect the institution’s liability.
The other alternatives—talking to him, shrugging it off as a poorly considered social media gaffe—placed the fate of the school and perhaps many students at the mercy of moral luck. These would seem like reasonable decisions only if the moral luck dice did not come up snake eyes. Allred didn’t say “if” I buy a gun, he said when. He added race to the equation, and there are a lot of people who seem to be losing their grip in the wake of the election. What were the odds that he meant what he wrote? 100 to 1? 1000 to 1? 5000 to 1? Is it worth the remote chance that this was a warning of an impending catastrophe not to take the safe route, and have him arrested and examined? Is it worth gambling with students’ lives?
Wait a minute, though. Doesn’t a teacher deserve the benefit of the doubt? This is a college campus. Hypotheticals and rhetorical questions vital features of the culture. Supposedly, so is free expression, common sense, and academic freedom, though too many institutions disagree. If the tweeter has no record of violence or metal illness, shouldn’t that dictate a less draconian first response, or no response at all other than “You really need to be a bit more careful on social media, Kevin”? The more I considered the episode, the more I was reminded of Justin Carter, the teen who was dragged through a Kafka-esque legal hell because he commented to a friend on Facebook while they were playing a game, “Oh yeah, I’m real messed up in the head, I’m going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still, beating hearts. lol. jk.”
In this case, the party who created the ethics zugswang was Allred, who as an employee, an adult and an instructor, should know better than to broadcast his provocative musings in 140 characters or less to the world at large, rather than confining them to class. He should know that campus shootings aren’t a joking matter after the Virginia Tech attack. If he had said “someone” rather than “I,” avoided “when” to make it clear this was a hypothetical, the situation would probably have not arisen.
Then Rutgers would only be risking outraged parents demanding to know why a prestigious school thinks it’s responsible to have their students going into debt to pay for courses like the one Allred teaches.
“attempts to think through contemporary U.S. society and its current gender, race, class, and sexual politics by analyzing the music and career of Beyoncé Giselle Knowles Carter.”
Pointer and Facts: Res Ipsa Loquitur