Is Bob Jordan a victim of “cancel culture”? Or is he being justly criticized for his use of a stereotype about Black people during a course he teaches on cinema at San Diego State University?
There are sharply opposing views on that at SDSU, one of several San Diego universities that have become embroiled in the heated national debate over what’s acceptable language in an academic setting, especially during a time of heightened tension over racial justice.
SDSU faculty last year revolted against a proposal that could have hurt their benefits if they said or did things that were perceived to harm the school’s reputation. The University of San Diego is investigating one of its professors for making a remark online that some consider to be anti-Asian. And Cal State San Marcos is considering banishing the name of the university’s founder over anti-immigrant remarks that were made nearly 30 years ago.
The flare-ups also highlight the ability of social media to accelerate and amplify any dispute. Some students and faculty say things have reached the point where they parse their words for fear of becoming a target. Others say such platforms provide a way to hold people accountable for what they say and do.
The latest controversy at SDSU erupted from Jordan’s “Introduction to Cinema” course, one of two he was teaching until last week, when he was replaced by the university. This may interest you : COVID-19 cases in Ramona and San Diego County. The other is “History of Prime Time TV.”
The topic of the April 12 class was the psychological thriller “Fatal Attraction” — a film that, it should be noted, includes no lead characters who are Black. It was pre-recorded and broadcast online. (Much of SDSU’s curriculum is temporarily virtual, due to the pandemic.)
Jordan, a veteran lecturer, referred to Black people as part of a larger discussion about race, gender and nationality in film. He told students he was going to express beliefs that he personally does not hold to make a point about racial ideology.
Speaking in a first-person style, Jordan said, in part, “I might have an assumption that Black people are just not as intelligent as White people. Oh, I can hear already people getting all riled up, right. I can believe that …
“That’s just the way that, you know, my values are. It doesn’t mean I am going to come and lynch you. It doesn’t mean that I am going to do something attacking you. It might mean that I won’t hire you … “
Students were not able to respond to Jordan in real-time because the class was pre-recorded. But on the internet reaction was swift and sharp.
An unidentified person took a 50-second video from the class and posted it on Twitter, conveying what Jordan said. The clip drew lots of anger, including from people identifying themselves as SDSU students.
“He could have chosen ANY other example but he hadddddd to use a racial one, mannnnn….” said a person using the Twitter handle NIKKI.
The video also bothered Blake Howard, a SDSU student who has been taking Jordan’s course on television.
“He’s been using examples about race a lot, even when there didn’t appear to be a need for it,” Jordan told the Union-Tribune. “It’s been hard to tell when he’s being hypothetical and when he isn’t.”
SDSU, which has faced several racial and free-speech issues in recent years, posted a short, unsigned message on Twitter noting that Jordan had insisted that the harsh language “in no way represents his personal views or opinions.”
The school also supported his right to academic freedom, which gives teachers great latitude to say provocative things in their field of expertise. It differs from free speech, which gives a person a broad right to say anything.
SDSU President Adela de la Torre would not answer questions about the Jordan matter from the Union-Tribune. Nor would Luke Wood, the school’s vice president of student affairs and campus diversity.
Jordan did talk with the Union-Tribune, but later said in an email, “I’ve been instructed not to speak any further with anyone from the media and specifically not to show that lecture to anyone outside of campus officials.”
The controversy has already affected what Jordan teaches.
He said during a recorded interview that he dropped plans to lecture on the work of famed Black actor Sidney Poitier — who appeared in many movies involving questions of race — and switched his focus to the romantic comedy, “Singing in the Rain.” His courses were handed over to other instructors after his remarks sparked anger.
Jordan, who earned separate Masters degrees from SDSU and the University of Southern California, defended his decision to portray an imaginary person and describe how they might speak about race and culture.
“If you listen to this lecture in its entirety, I not only say that Black people are not intelligent, I also say that some people grow up thinking Jews are greedy, and that’s just the way they assume the world is,” said Jordan, who is 60, White, and lives in El Cajon.
“I have also said in that same lecture that some people are brought up to mistrust Asian folks in the community …
“What I was doing was basically a speech technique. I was saying something that other people in another time, in another era, in another location, might believe and might consider common sense.”
Playing a role?
He drew support on this point from Peter Atterton, an SDSU philosophy professor and member of University Senate. This may interest you : Here’s What You Need to Know About the $1.9 Trillion House Stimulus – NBC 7 San Diego.
“While his presentation may have been a little artless, even clumsy, it seems to me what he did is essentially no different from what an actor does when they play a role,” Atterton said in an email. “Professor Jordan was teaching an Introduction to Cinema class after all.
“Consider the actor Ralph Waite who played the vicious slave ship overseer in the mini-series Roots. Do we criticize him for it, morally speaking? Of course we don’t. That would be foolish. Indeed, it would be just as foolish to consider him a good husband and father because of his role in The Waltons!”
Jordan also got support from Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a Philadelphia-based civil rights group that focuses on academia.
“People are supposed to be able to say things that others would view was indelicately said or a mistake or improperly argued,” Steinbaugh said. “That is what that exchange is supposed to be about. And students have their own right to respond to it and criticize it.”
The incident drew a far different reaction from Jahfreen Alam, editor of The Guardian, a newspaper at UC San Diego.
“No matter what the intent was, how are you going to tell a Black student that I’m not going to physically hurt you, don’t worry about that,” Alam told the Union-Tribune in an email. “I can’t believe he used the word ‘lynch’ either! Especially with recent events, it’s completely tone-deaf and insensitive on his part.”
Alam was referring to the fact that Jordan’s remarks came while former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was standing trial for the murder of George Floyd. He was found guilty on Tuesday.
Jordan said the trial was not on his mind.
“I had no connection at all with that,” said Jordan, who has been teaching for about 35 years. “My family doesn’t have regular television and (I) don’t watch television news. We do not get the newspaper.
“Am I aware of that trial? Yes. Just basic references on the internet.”
The inability to recognize other people’s sensitivities has proven to be factor in some of the most heated disputes over language and symbols — often reflecting a generational disconnect. Read also : Black sailor finds noose on San Diego-based warship, sparking investigation. It can determine whether a person is able to keep their job, or become publicly humiliated in the process of losing it.
Some faculty at the nation’s colleges and universities have said that students request, and some times demand, “trigger warnings” — or alerts that they’re about to hear sensitive material.
In one nationally prominent example of clashing interpretations of racially charged language earlier this year, veteran New York Times science reporter Donald G. McNeil Jr. resigned during a controversy after he used a racial slur in a discussion with a high school student on a trip to Peru. The 2019 education trip was hosted by the Times and McNeil was a guide.
McNeil said on the website Medium that the student had used the same word during their conversation and that he was confirming the use of the slur.
His words offended some students and parents, who complained to The Times. McNeil was disciplined but kept his job. The incident was eventually picked up by the media, became the subject of a letter from 150 Times employees to management, and led to McNeil’s resignation.
When the Daily Beast was about to publish a story on the matter in January, the Times told McNeil the same thing that SDSU would later tell Jordan: Do not talk to the media.
Last year, the SDSU University Senate drafted a proposal that would have given the school the right to strip professors of emeritus status if they did anything to hurt the school’s reputation.
Some faculty described the proposal as a vague idea that represented a specific attack on free speech and academic freedom. They also worried about possibly losing, or failing to gain, emeritus status, whose benefits include everything from office space to health and dental coverage.
“I could be a target since I have written numerous op eds critical, sometimes highly critical, of SDSU’s actions, and so, arguably, ‘harmed the university’s reputation,’ ” Peter Herman, a literature professor, told the Union-Tribune at the time.
The proposal, which received a lot of publicity online, was set aside and not passed.
Another speech battle is currently playing out at the University of San Diego, which is investigating law professor Thomas Smith for remarks he made in March about China and the origin of the novel coronavirus.
“If you believe that the coronavirus did not escape from the lab in Wuhan, you have to at least consider that you are an idiot who is swallowing whole a lot of Chinese **** swaddle,” Smith wrote on his blog The Right Coast.
That claim is not supported by scientists. La Jolla’s Scripps Research, among others, say the virus is the product of natural evolution.
Smith’s comments drew a formal complaint from the campus chapter of the Asian Pacific American Law Student Association, which described his language as “dangerous rhetoric” and “disturbing and hurtful.”
The group received support from USD law school dean Robert Schapiro, who said, “It is especially concerning when the disparaging language comes from a member of our community.”
Smith said his remarks were aimed at the Chinese government, not the Chinese people, or anyone else.
The controversy remains alive on social media, which is something that universities find very difficult to handle.
“I think institutions don’t know how to interpret the volume of speech or complaints that they get,” said FIRE’s Steinbaugh.
“If they get 500 tweets they might interpret that as being a huge chunk of the population that’s really upset and think they they have to deal with it. They might over-react. That’s because speech is now cheaper. It’s a lot easier to say something and be heard.”
Some of the people who posted comments on the tweet and video clip about Jordan’s class were undergraduates, many of whom are members of Generation Z, the first generation that has always had access to the Internet, social media and cell phones. The Union-Tribune reached out to eight students, but wasn’t able to find anyone willing to talk on the record.
Devin Whatley, who studies journalism at SDSU, says a lot of college-age students simply skim-read. But he added “in the case of Robert Jordan, people were looking at the caption of the tweet first, and that caught their attention to stop skimming.”
Alam regards the lightning response on Twitter as a positive use of social media. “It’s our generation’s way of calling out problems and holding people accountable,” he said.
Jordan feels like a victim of social media’s read-and-retweet culture.
“I’m being called a cracker. I’m being called a racist bastard,” Jordan said. “Some people are also praising me and saying, ‘Look, these (critics) are clueless. They don’t even understand what you were describing was somebody else’s opinion.’”
Dilip Jeste, a psychiatry professor at UCSD, is worried about the lasting effects of what occurs on social media. He says the toxic results reflect the deepening anger, depression, intolerance and isolation that’s felt by people all over the world due to everything from scorched-earth politics to the pandemic to the struggle to get and keep a decent job.
“Empathy, compassion and self-reflection are seen as signs of weakness,” Jeste said. “But those are the things we need. That is what we need to teach.”