The Problem with "Awkward Couples of Liberty University"
In Puritan times, citizens who trespassed against the law were subject, among other punishments, to humiliation at the pillory, something Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts memorably in The Scarlet Letter. The pillory was
so fashioned as to confine the human head in its tight grasp, and thus hold it up to the public gaze. The very ideal of ignominy was embodied and made manifest in this contrivance of wood and iron. There can be no outrage, methinks—against our common nature—whatever be the delinquencies of the individual—no outrage more flagrant than to forbid the culprit to hide his face for shame.
The days of the pillory have long passed. But the humiliation of the public gaze—for social transgressions, if not criminal ones—lives on, thanks to Facebook and the internet.
Consider Exhibit A: the website People of Walmart.org, which posts surreptitiously taken photographs of shoppers who embody the worst stereotypes imaginable within this particular demographic (a demographic large enough, incidentally, to include this writer).
Exhibit B is the blog Asians Sleeping in the Library, picturing—you guessed it—Asians sleeping in various university libraries. Although this site, like the people of Wal-Mart site, is also rooted in stereotypes, it intends to "celebrate, not berate" those pictured, according to the blog's creator. Indeed, a former student of mine was featured there when she was a sleepy, studious law student, and she took it as an honor. Of course, it helps, she told me, that she's "not a particularly private person" and that the friend who submitted the photo of her sleeping got her permission first. Still, while she does find the site funny, she acknowledges "mixed feelings" about it. "I think a lot of the photos are sent in by strangers or people who aren't so considerate about how someone might feel about being the object of amusement." Fortunately, the site's owner, who describes himself as someone who also likes to sleep in libraries, asks anyone who wants a picture taken down to contact him and he will "gladly do it."
Exhibit C was brought to my attention by a current student of mine at Liberty University: a new Facebook group called Awkward Couples of Liberty. Created just a few weeks ago, the group has gained nearly 6,000 "likes." As its name suggests, the site posts photos of couples taken around campus engaged in romantic moments that are quite awkward—most often (but not always) a rather innocent kind of awkward, although still in violation of university rules that prohibit physical contact beyond handholding (resulting in posts in the group by the Dean of Students reminding students of university rules and consequences for violations). The group's creator cautions group members that "there is no reason to make harsh fun at anyone or say anything rude about their appearance," invites contact from anyone concerned about the page, and has even posted a photo of a roommate caught in an act of awkwardness.
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