A San Jose State English Department professor wrote in a Tweet shortly after Barbara Bush’s death on April 17, 2018:
“Barbara Bush was a generous and smart and amazing racist who, along with her husband, raised a war criminal. Fuck outta here with your nice words.”
She then added:
“PSA: either you are against these pieces of shit and their genocidal ways or you’re part of the problem. That’s actually how simple this is. “I’m happy the witch is dead. can’t wait for the rest of her family to fall to their demise the way 1.5 million Iraqis have. byyyeeeeeee.”
When numerous calls for her firing from San Jose State appeared on Twitter, she responded by stating she was protected by tenure and provided a hashtag to the university’s President to voice complaints. But the response was so voluminous and adverse that she later set her account on “private.”
Randa Jarrar is an educated woman and a published writer who teaches creative writing at San Jose State. She is about 40 years old. She is a U.S. citizen, born in Chicago, raised in Kuwait and Egypt before returning to the U.S. after the first Gulf War.
Ms. Jarrar feels strongly about U.S. middle east military intervention. She obviously cares deeply about the lost civilian lives in Iraq, and with equal fervor, she is angry at U.S. intervention. She uses the term “racist,” “genocidal,” and “war criminal,” and “witch.” She uses these words to respond to the “nice words” being tweeted by persons honoring the memory of the First Lady.
Her motivation is likely coming from a place of hurt that persons of similar culture and religion as hers have suffered so greatly because of decades of war. She may feel helpless to effect political change. All this is speculation, but one thing is clear: she was so enraptured by her own story of U.S. evil in the middle east that she was willing to take an extreme position contrary to a basic sense of social propriety. She was either out of touch or indifferent to the respect generally shown to a First Lady despite the public’s antagonism towards her husband.
Creativity Within Boundaries
Boundaries set limits
Ms. Jarrar is a creative writing teacher of college-age students. As a creative writer, she likely has a mindset that conventional ideas are often sterile or uninteresting. She likely enjoys pushing intellectual and ideational boundaries to explore other insights. She probably wants to know the deeper meanings of our ordinary lives.
While boundaries can be tested and should be, they also most of the time merit restraint. Boundaries define values and set identities. Attacking values and obliterating identities does not advance human flourishing if the values are good, and the identities based on rational differences. For example, if UNICEF is fulfilling its mission to care for vulnerable children, it has a positive value that differentiates it from other identities like Bashar Hafez al-Assad or Kim Jong-un.
Knowing right boundaries, and the right levels of attack on immoral boundaries [such as gulags and political prison camps] is a critical human insight. Ms. Jarrar’s response was an attack against the boundary of “nice words” for someone she personally despised as complicit in war crimes for having raised a son, G.W. Bush, whom she viewed as a “war criminal.” In a sense, she had a conflicted or confused sense of boundaries. To speak out against injustice is important, but she was wrong to indulge in emotional, impulsive, and vulgar attacks against a woman she did not know except as the wife and mother to persons she hates.
Boundaries create challenges and problems
Boundaries of civil discourse present challenges in communication. The easy route is sarcasm, personal attacks, and humiliation. The challenge of addressing important public issues is to appeal to logic, evidence, and yes, to do so with passionate clarity, but also to be civil.
The irony of personal attack is that it accomplishes little to change the minds of persons who disagree with us. To the contrary, by attacking the characters of those who hold different views we harden the minds of those we would hope to persuade. And maybe that is appropriate, for an idea that cannot stand on its own merit based on good evidence and sound thinking is likely a weak idea that must masquerade by personal attack.
Boundaries bring form and beauty.
Within boundaries of time and space, or within social debate boundaries of civility, the communication has a pleasing and artistic quality. A sonnet works because it must meet the boundaries of iambic pentameter. Music is pleasing because it conforms to a harmonic scale. An argument is convincing because it complies with logic and relevance to the issues. The boundaries bring forth the creativity needed to succeed within the boundaries. Ms. Jarrar is a creative person who failed to understand that her communication would have been much more impactful had she set the right boundaries.
Labeling is a robotic and thoughtless exercise in public discourse. We use labels instead of analysis. We characterize instead of probing. We attack instead of listening. The payoff for such shortcuts is a false certainty and easy comfort. By labeling, we avoid the work and discomfort of real thinking. We also lose perspective and balance. Labels are generally child-like efforts to completely define and dismiss complex questions. We need not see the other side, balance factors for and against a proposition, or understand that our view may be uninformed or distorted.
Ms. Farrar disavowed her commitment to genuinely creative thought by succumbing to the easy route of labeling. Her strong hurts and hatreds shattered the boundaries that could have produced cogent ideas that encouraged others to think about U.S. military intervention. She managed to close doors otherwise open to her ideas. She likely also has lost her heralded tenured position because she was so out of touch with reality.