UW Struggle: Writing About Guns (The Cheesechurian Candidate)

Don’t become The Cheesechurian Candidate!

As all nine readers of this blog know (Hi mom! Love you!), I recently wrote about my fears and objections about allowing concealed weapons into campus buildings in the UW System. Understanding exactly what I was getting into, I took in all of the reactions without offering responses of my own—basically, I allowed myself to be rhetorically captive.

Why? Because for people like me—especially in my professional life—social/new media is perilous on-the-job training. Like so many who completed their graduate work before the existence of Facebook, Twitter, or WordPress, a certain fluency and accountability is expected  when working in new(er) and emerging media. It’s complicated. It’s risky. People lose their jobs for missteps. My primary professional goal is to be a good teacher, and part of the job involves exposing myself to mistakes, failure, embarrassment, harassment, risk, etc, so that my students may be spared those missteps. Yes, I know the conventional wisdom is “learn from your mistakes,” and look, I’ve made more than I can count, but I have learned far more from the mistakes of others, especially teachers.

It is incredibly hard to find new ways to talk about things, to “reframe,” to find your way into words that produce that rare and meaningful change. So, what happened when I wrote openly and honestly about guns? Exactly what I expected (which is dispiriting). For those looking to wade into the same waters, maybe on a blog of one’s own, here are some observations that you are free to ignore:

The Civility Trap

Anyone  who spends time on social media is familiar with “tone policing,” and in terms of our larger society, I think we can all easily point to examples of fallaciously equating tone with intent/logic. Basically, if I’m midwestern nice about ripping your pension away, boy are you a jerkface for being mad about it!

Are you being…grouchy?

In reviewing what I originally wrote, you’d have to perform a number of impressive acrobatics to read the post as “uncivil” or “disrespectful,” especially in my reposting the tweets of my representative without annotation and in their original context.  A number of blog posts were written in response to mine, and the majority could just not believe how rude and aggressive I am. For anyone who actually knows me, I will pause here while you double over in laughter….(10 second break)….put another way, the content of my representative’s tweets, and my responses, were not the issue: my tone was. “See, he’s so nice to his constituent! It’s all just a matter of respect and opinion. Mean, mean blogeyman!”

Of course, the blog responses which focused on my incivility spared no expense when attacking my masculinity, making unfounded assumptions about my life and politics; reveling in the fact that I admit to having fears; offering psychological diagnoses; and lobbing veiled threats. You know, civility. None of them reached out to me for comment (though one did contact my Assembly Representative for comment. Balance!), none offered a genuine chance to engage. Of course, there is no genuine opportunity. More on that later.

My Takeaway: just the facts, like my pal Ryan Martin. I’m still weighing the value of the personal narrative, of why I’m writing, especially given current research showing that logic does not have much influence on people’s opinions. Still, as Ryan so diligently illustrates, there are nonetheless facts, ignored or not. Also, it’s good to know there are so many armchair health professionals out there to inform me that a fear of deadly weapons is a pathology that requires I seek help and medication.

Enter the Revenue Model

The majority of attacking comments and posts came from sponsored, organized entities—some in blog form, some in more traditional media like radio.

One example is local talk radio in Wisconsin, the kind that is deeply wedded to ideology. (I will not link to any of them, as they receive revenue for traffic and I will not deliver you to their advertisers.) One person business model, who I will call “Uncle VandenFreedom,” tried multiple times to bait me into generating traffic and revenue for a ready-made, intractable “audience.” This person business model, realizing I would never read their website, tried to drum up business by sending me a link to a piece describing how terrible I am. When I didn’t respond as a willing customer, the following email exchange resulted:


Person Business Model: Sends link

Me: Thanks for sending the link. Trust me, I’m used to such criticism.

Person Business Model: I’m sure you are. I’m also sure you have no rational response to it.

Me: I don’t understand your venom here. I wrote a personal blog post, that’s it. I didn’t attack you in it in any way. Yet, you’re aggressively negative and have already called me irrational. Is this normally how you go about engaging people? Honestly, I’m a pretty friendly, reasonable guy.

Person Business Model: No venom at all Chuck, and I’m not attacking, being aggressive or negative. I’m simply pointing out that your position is completely irrational. When I suggest you defend it, you claim you’re being attacked. Entirely predictable.

Me: I have no problem defending my position. I guess I’m just saying we have very different ideas of how people introduce themselves to each other. So let me start by saying I hope you’re doing well and are having a good day.  I have a lot to do right now, but I’ll try to work up a quick response sometime during the day. Again, hope you’re doing well.

Person Business Model: Are box cutters and aircraft evil? Do you avoid aircraft and tall buildings the way you do theaters and farmer’s markets? Why or why not? I appreciate you indulging me.

Note: I was not praised for my civility. Outrageous! That’s another problem with The Civility Trap: I’m nice, just like my mom taught me, and people can’t even start a darn email with “hello.” I mean, fat frog’s ass already, I might as well just have responded with this:

Furthermore, after the first-wave readership (people who know me and read directly from FB or Twitter), almost all traffic to my site (and there was a lot) came from sponsored sources not just opposed to my specific position, but opposed to anything remotely associated with that position and anything else that “people like me” might be associated with—in fact, one such site has no purpose beyond seeking out statements like mine and hastily “responding” to readers who already agree. In contrast, the Cap Times did an entire story on my blog post/engagement with my representative–in assessing the traffic from that article, there was almost none. Less than ten people have clicked through since its publication. There are many reasons for this, but let’s just say that outrage is better business. This is why I despise nearly all web publications identified with “the left”—Salon, Huff Post, Crooks and Liars, etc.—where coverage of personality and outrageous statements generates a readership informed by little more than “Can you believe how stupid X is?”


Put another way, if I wanted to move from a personal model to a business model, I have ample opportunity to do so (thus, that opportunity is there for you right now). I have received countless offers to advertise on my site (all declined), yet here’s the opportunity before me—I’m a good enough writer to make specific people mad without trying that hard.  To Uncle VandenFreedom’s credit, he has no trouble harnessing predictable outrage for profit. My own moral standards prevent me from doing the same.

My Takeaway that I already knew: You cannot have a discussion with a business model. You cannot convince a revenue stream to change its mind. Don’t even bother engaging because every second is wasted and better directed to meaningful action related to your cause and goals.

Cul-de-Sac Hypocrisy

Pointing out hypocrisy is futile when dealing with people whose language is completely predetermined and entrenched.  Jon Stewart spent the majority of his career illustrating hypocrisy with almost no benefit beyond entertainment. From the responses to my post, there are too many examples to highlight, and to do so now, while offering great opportunities for fun and humor, feels a little…well…hypocritical. Still, let’s boil it down to one template.

Comment: I do not care if you carry a gun or not! If you don’t want to, fine. Just don’t get in the way of my legal rights! Now excuse me while I go try to (politley, of course) deny a woman her rights regarding her own health, and then after that I need to go express outrage at two people of the same gender wanting to get married because they are in love; I sure hope I can stop that in the name of my liberty.

See what I mean? It’s too easy and a complete dead end.

My Takeaway: The language of response is a cul-de-sac that keeps me rooted in the same location with no Northwest passage in sight. That’s the point. I am a nobody blogger who writes a post about his potential workplace conditions. A well-sponsored, better-funded machine than me responds with word salad (Chicago! Boxcutters!), drowns me out, and then moves on to the next ghazi.

The full cycle here: four days and then forgotten.

You are a Category, not a Person

I primed for this moment by using the “person business model” formulation above. (Self-awareness!)

Here’s what I learned: first, people do not know what “dehumanize” means, and second, it is vital for the responding noise machine to lump you into a category as quickly as possible (what’s the word for that?). Even though my blog post was deeply personal, and clearly about my own life and experience, the mob would have none of it. Here are some examples:

  • Even though the blog address is chuckrybak.com, paid for by me, written by me, sponsored by no one, and not at all associated with my employer, I was constantly referred to as “a professor.” The reasons for this are too obvious to detail further.
  • Even though I make no party identification in my post, provide no voting history, the majority of posts responding to me simply referred to me as the “liberal” in their titles, with one even comparing me to Hillary Clinton (!). These blogs then went on to object to my claims about being dehumanized (i.e. referred to as a category instead of a person). See above for “Cul-de-Dac Hypocrisy.”

My Takeaway: This is the most painful one, as it goes to the heart of voice and expression and subjectivity. (Note: yes, I am well aware that offering this here as a “takeaway” demonstrates an incredible amount of privilege, but that’s a whole different post). What do I mean? These forums feel devoid of empathy, populated and monitored by interests with deep indifference to human life and community.

The Queen of Diamonds

I don’t believe anything I write will make a difference and, as I’ve said over and over in my writings about higher education, only one thing matters: the legislature and voting. A lot of us like-minded folks need to think about coordinating and running for office, no matter how small (I wrote myself in for Sheriff). And when in those offices, just move ahead and don’t look back. What else is there? Am I wrong?

To close the loop a bit, I was a little confused by the UW’s initial statement regarding the proposed legislation on guns in classrooms—it was, to say the least, brief. I confess to now having some understanding and sympathy as to why.