April 16, 2008

E-mails Target Professor For Showing Tibet Film

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As international attention on the situation between Tibet and China has increased over the past few weeks while China prepares for the Olympics, a Cornell anthropology professor was the subject of personal attacks posted to two University listservs last week in response to a film screening and discussion she organized on “the prospects for peace in Tibet.”
After Prof. Kathryn March, anthropology, began publicizing the event several weeks ago, it immediately provoked a wave of impassioned e-mail responses, most of which criticized the event. A handful of the responses on the listservs were personally directed at March.
“I … was told to ‘go die’ on the Chinese Students and Scholars Association listserv,” March said at the opening of her event last Thursday, “[I] received personal emails saying things like ‘I spit on you’ or telling me that I needed ‘a brain spa’ where I could get ‘botox [for my] brain and age,’ advice that another e-mailer applauded by writing ‘well said! support!’”
These personal attacks represented the reactions of only a few students, but a considerable amount of the e-mail traffic on the listservs reflected anger from Chinese students about Tibet potentially not being considered part of China. The messages also expressed anger towards the Western media for misrepresenting China.
Many of those who reacted were troubled by a quotation that March included on the event’s promotional flyer from L.A. Times reviewer,Kevin Thomas who referred to Tibet as a “tragic country.”
Liang Dang, who is from China and made several posts to the international students’ listserv, said he was not offended when he learned of the film screening, but was made uncomfortable by the way it was presented.
“Prof. March’s endorsement of a quotation that shows Tibet as a country shows a biased attitude,” Dang said.
While March said she recognized that the Tibet-China situation is sensitive to many on both sides and there are many complicated issues involved, she said that discrepancies in “cross-cultural communication” may have played a role in the specific reaction towards the quotation on the flyer.
March explained that in American English the word “country” does not necessarily refer to a distinct region. She expressed concern that this connotation may be lost when translated to Chinese.
This incident comes as the Olympic torch, on its way to the Beijing Olympics this August, has been greeted by demonstrations and protests around the world. The emotional protests on both sides intensified last week on campuses across the country.
Duke’s student newspaper, The Chronicle, reported Monday that a student who expressed herself at a pro-Tibet protest was the victim of harassing phone calls and e-mails and had her personal information posted on the Duke Chinese Scholars and Students Association website.
Students at NYU, Columbia and the University of Southern Mississippi have also participated in protests, according to their respective student newspapers.
No disruptive protests took place at the film screening and discussion at Cornell last Thursday. At the beginning of the event, David Yeh, vice president for student and academic services, read a statement urging the approximately 70-member audience to practice “responsible speech” in accordance with the University’s Code of Conduct. A Cornell University Police Department officer was also on hand for the screening and discussion.
“People engaged in very productive, passionate and caring conversation,” March said.
Prof. Chen Jian, history, who is the faculty advisor for the Chinese Students and Scholars Association, was a panelist at the discussion and offered a public apology to March about the messages.
“Those messages certainly do not represent the Chinese Student Scholars Association,” he said in an interview yesterday, “People with a connection to China and people of Chinese decent at Cornell do not endorse these messages.”
While he condemned the inappropriate reactions to the film screening, Chen said he thought the movie was historically biased.
“Watching the documentary, I was profoundly disturbed by the one-sided nature of the presentation of the issues,” Chen said.
“The reactions [to the movie on the listserv] are understandable even though improper,” Dang said, “It’s just a mail list, and I think people quarrel a lot on many lists. I think the virtual world makes people behave less rationally.”
Dang said that the messages should be interpreted with the understanding that they were likely written in a “less serious” and informal way.
March said that while she did not feel personally threatened by the messages, it reminded her of how deeply people feel about these issues.
“We need to do better education about what is appropriate to say in e-mails,” she said, “People need to understand that they will be held accountable.”
The incident raises questions of free speech in a somewhat anonymous and electronic forum.
At least one student who left angry messages, attacking Prof. March used a Gmail account that appears to have been deactivated. Several other students also used non-Cornell email addresses to post on the listserv. Unlike Cornell email addresses, it is not immediately clear the real identity of the senders from these outside e-mail aliases.
“Cornell, in general, maintains a free speech perspective in its networking services,” and does not monitor any listservs, according to Tracy Mitrano, law ’95, director of information technology policy and computer policy and law programs for the Office of Information Technologies.
Mitrano said that the people who run the listservs take responsibility for what messages are exchanged, but the University could become involved if any language constituted harassment and violated the University Code of Conduct.
“Unfortunately the anonymity of e-mail [aliases] and some websites have created an environment where it seems appropriate not to identify yourself,” Mitrano added. Within this framework, “it seems that people have been using anonymous speech to say derogatory things about other people without the courage to say who they are,” she said.
Under normal circumstances, it is possible technically to trace Internet communications, Mitrano said. However, CIT would only trace an email address after due process, which could come from a subpoena from law enforcement or after a high-level administrative review of the situation at Cornell.
Despite the messages, both March and Chen said they hoped that issues of Tibet and China would continue to be discussed.
“I hope Cornell will continue to provide contexts in which both Tibetan and Chinese members of the community can continue to try to find solutions,” March said.