When I woke up April 18, 2021 my to-do list did not include fearing for my students, colleagues and faculty members’ lives. However, as many of us soon found out, those plans changed around 1:45 p.m. when a BG Alert announced that a non-student and white man, dressed in all black with an American flag on his back, was openly carrying a deadly weapon on our campus.
As many now know, the said white man was eventually arrested with a charge of inducing panic. From what I understand, this can be considered either a misdemeanor, or in certain cases, a low grade felony. And, typically, the punishment for this charge is 180 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. However, according to criminal defense attorney Donald Michael Gallick, very few defendants receive the maximum punishment.
Considering our violent American context, in this case, that’s a rather disappointing thing to learn. But not unpredictable because being alive in America today means you or one of your loved ones have likely been personally affected by either a mass shooting, school shooting or in our most recent cases, a threateningly terrorizing close call.
Mass shootings have already long come to be seen and understood as some sort of sadistic American trademark. Arguably, little proves that more saliently than the two white gunmen that the BGSU administration gave a free pass to walk our campus donning three assault rifles only two days after the first. And on the anniversary of Columbine, at that.
This is why, before continuing on, I want to make myself clear. In writing this letter to the editor, I am not interested in exerting any energy debating any of these white gunmans’ intentions in open carrying on our college campus. Relatedly, I’m not writing this letter to the editor to reiterate any statistics about white masculine mass and/or campus shootings, or those regarding the slap on the criminal wrists they so often receive. Instead, I’m writing to offer questions I believe might be of value for our campus community to consider as we move forward from the impact of these white man gun-toting traumatic events.
Before I ask these questions, a little background explanation is in order. And, I’ll be the first to admit that these questions of mine are informed by my bachelor’s degree in sociology and master’s degree in communication as much as they are my recent immersion in the field of media ecology.
For those who may not be familiar, media ecologists study the ways in which certain technologies and media have gone “environmental.” In other words, studying media ecology is to study “what types of changes the introduction of a certain technology has on us and our societies?” as they exist within our physical and digital worldly spaces.
Like any field, depending on which media ecological theorists work you’d consult, the belief regarding how this works is conceived of differently. Notably though, from my understanding, these environmental or ecological effects of technologies are then commonly referred to as having moved from being simple technologies to then becoming “mediums” through which we see and understand our world. This is why, arguably the most famous Canadian media ecologist Marshall McLuhan, is known for coining the phrase, “the medium is the message.”
Part and parcel of this process is an exploration of what certain “mediums” reveal, and simultaneously, what they conceal for us as we traverse through our physical, digital and increasingly algorithmic worlds. Additionally, McLuhan asserted that these mediums build upon and/or extend our basic human senses (especially, sight/sound/hearing), altering our experiences of the world in subtle, taken for granted ways.
As easy to believe as this all might sound in our technologically immersive and digital worlds now, during McLuhan’s lifetime (July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980), his work was seen as unorthodox (due to its interdisciplinary nature, creative literary influences and many times cryptically written bold claims). Setting these academic criticisms of McLuhan’s focus on the medium over the message aside, in recent years, numerous scholars have revisited his work; reporting it to have been decades ahead of his time, and even prophetic of our current digital and algorithmic age.
With those brief explanations of some basic media ecological history in mind, today, for these reasons, media ecologists (like myself) have been inspired by McLuhan’s work, as well as other notable media ecologists such as Christine Nystrom, Neil Postman and Walter Ong. For instance, over the course of the last few decades many of these thinkers have spent their professional, personal and creative lives shedding light on the ways in which the creation, design, and usage of the phonetic English language has shaped our senses of reality. Beyond that, others have expanded the field documenting any type of technology imaginable (TVs, clothes, robots, autonomous cars, social media platforms, etc.).
In pursuit of these big questions, media ecologists don’t follow one main method, but instead a sort of guiding approach, using and misusing whatever theoretical tools and methods are available at their disposal to freshly explore and reveal otherwise taken for granted aspects of our world. In other words, contrary to traditional social scientific thought and practices which strive for measured control and objectivity, this welcoming broadness keeps the field’s orientation holistic; readily allowing for the widest possible potential of perspectives and understandings.
Functionally, media ecologists do this because they seek the creation of “counter-environments” or “breakdowns as breakthroughs”. And these often take the form of questions, in order to unveil what is otherwise unseen: the dominant perspective. With that said, this process is, of course, a subjectively, historically and geographically specific experience, in which perpetual exploration, reflexivity and revisitation is welcomed and needed.
For example, one gross oversimplification of the American context might be that the world, as an objective reality, is exactly how it is as depicted on mainstream TV programming (think sitcoms) or perhaps any K-12 American history textbook. However, we know this isn’t the whole truth because as critical media scholars and conservative pundits have both made us aware in recent years, trustworthy information and sources are now more complicated to identify than ever before.
From agenda-driven misinformation campaigns, to politically mediated accusations of mainstream fake news and disinformation campaigns produced by who-the-hell-knows rampantly online; differentiating what is true and what is fabricated by some untrustworthy source has become increasingly complicated.
This is why, as we proceed into whatever the final weeks of Spring ‘21 have in store for us, and in consideration of the recent, and any future admin-approved, white, American-flag donning gunmen campus crises, I believe media ecological questions could be of use to us.
Please keep in mind these questions can be answered several times. And, in fact, I welcome you to answer them as such; differently and exhaustively, in order to glean a more holistically critical understanding of the different sense-makings we each might conceive of, regarding these shocking, and all too common, types of traumatic American college campus events:
What is the problem to which carrying a gun on our BGSU campus is a solution?
Is this a problem most of us yearn to have solved?
Whose problem is it? Is it everybody’s problem? Or even most people’s problem?
Who benefits from said problem?
Who suffers from said problem?
What will we do to resolve said problem?
To be as transparent as possible, I don’t have or believe that there are any perfectly “objective” or “right” answers to any of these questions. For media ecologists, thinking about a collection of varying potential answers to questions is not a practice for the purposes of being “correct” or “winning” an argument. It is a practice for the purposes of orienting us towards multiple current understandings of our reality. This is an approach I strongly believe can help us proceed toward the type of world and BGSU community we should be striving toward building together. I would argue we would all benefit from adopting this approach.
In other words, no matter your ideological allegiance, personally and politically, considerations of these questions can aptly aid us in acknowledging and begin readily processing the fact that deadly technologies (and the mediums they become) have effects on all spheres of our lives. Ergo, any answers these questions might provoke for you, and whether you’re a student, staff or faculty, I welcome you to stay curious about our world. And, first and foremost, please take care of yourself during the final week of our present- COVID Spring ‘21 semester together.