Student Texting Interrupts Speech by Holocaust Survivor, in Latest Incident of Tech-Driven Rudeness

April 12, 2010 06:45 AM
by Sarah Amandolare
An Oregon high school moves to confiscate cell phones used during school, after student texting and chatting interrupted a presentation by a Holocaust survivor.

Scappoose High School Demands "Common Decency"

When Holocaust survivor Alter Wiener was a youth living near Krakow, Poland, he had such reverence for education that he took of his cap when he passed a teacher in the street. So when he shared his life story with an audience of 700 students at Scappoose High School in Oregon, he was startled to find some students rudely texting on cell phones.

"They were missing the chance to hear of a boy who lived in hell for his teenage years, and to learn to appreciate what they have," Weiner, 84, told findingDulcinea. Weiner has made more than 600 presentations as part of the speaker's bureau of the Oregon Holocaust Resources Center. After one of his first school appearances, a teen girl wrote him to say she had been contemplating suicide, but looked at her problems in a different light after hearing Weiner speak. He has since received a dozen similar letters.

Weiner published "From a Name to a Number: A Holocaust Survivor's Autobiography" after a former U.S. Army Officer, who had helped to liberate the Buchenwald prisoner camp, tearfully urged Wiener to write a book for the officer's "children, and for his grandchildren, so they would always know about what the officer had seen."

Wiener, 84, told Anne Yeager for News Channel 8 Portland that he has “no problem to forgive,” but admits he has never before had to request that the audience show him “some respect.” Wiener told findingDulcinea that many of the other students apologized after his presentation for the conduct of their peers.

After the embarrassing incident, Scappoose High School Principal Eric Clendenin issued a new policy of confiscating iPods and cell phones used in school. According to Susan Harding of KATU News, Clendenin wants his students to understand the concept of respect before graduating. “I want you to have your life skills. And life skills would include basic common decency (and) respect for others,” he said of his students.

The Portland Tribune reported the text of a letter that Clendenin sent to students and concluded “My sincere hope is that this entire subject will be taken with the spirit of which it is intended and that is to finish the job of producing responsible young adults who are aware of what it will take to be successful in the future. I will never apologize for raising our expectations for the fine students at Scappoose High School and I feel completely confident in how they will respond.”

Twitter Heckling

Even among adults, decent behavior is harder to come by during public presentations in these days of rapid-fire Twitter conversations, however.

Marc Parry discussed Twitter heckling, or “Tweckling,” in a piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education in November 2009. In the past, conference attendees had little choice but to sit silently during even the most boring keynote speeches. But today, speakers who flub badly enough “risk mobilizing a scrum of digital-spitball-slinging snark-masters” on Twitter. Parry goes on to describe a particularly “brutal” Twitter attack that occurred during the October 2009 HighEdWeb Association conference.  

Ed Justen, an Internet coach, computer trainer and social media advisor, blogged in Novemeber 2009 about the perils of Twitter. He claims that, “what started out nearly three years ago as value-added instant communication, has now turned into a forum for critique, and in one case, downright harassment.”

Justen cites a few examples of Twitter being used to tear people down. For instance, at the November 2009 Web 2.0 Expo in New York, danah boyd, a veteran public speaker who works for Microsoft and Harvard's Berkman Center, fumbled through the early part of a presentation due to technical glitches. A Twitter stream remarking on her speech was displayed on a giant video screen behind boyd. Justen reports that "as the session wore on, the tweets got nastier, including a few comments that would qualify as sexual harassment had they occurred in the workplace;" this produced loud snickering from some members of the audience.

Opinion and Analysis: Technology, for better or worse?

Technology seems to be the preferred mode of communication today, particularly among young people, but not everyone is convinced of its value. Jake Lynch, Editor of the Issaquah Reporter, was troubled by the incident at Scappoose High School, and gave his take on socializing and engagement in a digital world.

Although he doesn’t use Facebook or send text messages, Lynch hesitates to say those who do have become “disconnected ... from real society.” Rather, he sees a “generational divide” that has led to different “definitions of ‘socialize’ and ‘engage.’”

Lynch asks, “if we can assume that what people gain is the ability to communicate small pieces of information instantly and regularly, then the question is ‘what do we lose?’” In his opinion, today’s generation of habitual texters and Facebook users could lose the ability “to look up, and look around, at the incredibly beautiful and moving things happening all around us.”

However, there seem to be incredibly creative – even beautiful – things happening on the Web, too.

In an interview with CNN last October, Cliff Boro of kid-friendly browser KidZui discussed how kids are using the Web, what they demand from content and how to keep them engaged while they learn.

The most surprising aspect for Boro has been discovering that kids use the Web much differently and, in some regards, more creatively than adults. Boro says, “kids are bigger explorers in terms of discovering content on the Internet.” He tells CNN that kids “love voting on content, they love giving their opinion. They love sharing things.”

Related Topic: Technology enabling poor etiquette

The Washington Post’s Miss Manners addressed technology’s enablement of rude behavior in a 2005 column. She writes, “technology exists to enable audiences to pass their cracks silently to one another,” but such remarks do not necessarily represent progress.

“Heckling ... during live speeches or performances” has never been “considered a polite way of registering objections,” Miss Manners writes. Where in the past they would have booed, withheld applause or walked out mid-performance, today’s audiences are given free reign to disseminate “immediate personal reactions to just about everything” on the Internet. Furthermore, doing so is considered “audience participation” and is thought to “enhance any format.”

She discusses people’s excitement about technological freedom, which often leads them to forget any “of the restrictions that bind familiar activities.” Ultimately, however, critiquing events while they happen “is rude under long-existing rules,” Miss Manners concludes.

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