Penn State Training Video highlights…

Hmm… I first heard about this video on XM radio, as I was scrolling through the dial.  The general sense of the conversation was that Penn State created a “counseling training video” that cast a returning Iraqi war vet as a violent, angry white man threatening a white female instructor/professor.  The conservatives and the vets chose to be upset at being portrayed in a negative, and stereotypical manner.

Interestingly, I had apparently just missed all the media outlets that covered it, including the Wall Street Journal.  When discussing this video in the context of the rest of the videos they wrote:

The video about The Veteran is similar to the others, in that all depict abnormal behavior by young people who probably are normal, but are immature or temporarily impaired. But the characters in the other videos are all completely generic, with no distinguishing characteristics other than their sex. Only The Veteran is fleshed out enough even to be a stereotype.

The obvious objection to the depiction of The Veteran is that there is no reason to think that veterans are more prone than anyone else to lash out angrily, blaming others for their own failings. If anything, one would think that the rigors of military training and deployment would leave them more mature, at least in this regard.

Herein lies, I believe, the problem.

The video does seem to call out the “veteran” as the miscreant.  The reality is something quite different, however.  In the video, a student expresses a strong opinion, and raises his voice apparently in anger, although one could argue it is out of frustration.  At the end of the video he even “threatens” the instructor.  But not with violence.  He threatens to get her fired for what he perceives is a bias against veterans based on her anti-war comments expressed in class.

So here is the stereotype–a young, female and liberal professor, subconciously demonstrating a bias against a returning veteran.  In addition, because she knows he is a veteran having returned from Iraq, she attributes his rather benign actions to some sort of predisposition to violence, and one could perhaps argue over-reacts.

Interestingly the Wall Street Journal sees it in much the same light, although again focused on the stereotyping of the veteran when they write:

But The Veteran’s status as a veteran is relevant to the video’s story, inasmuch as he believes the instructor is treating him unfairly because he is a veteran. This lends another dimension to Maggie Kwok’s speculation about the reaction if the character were depicted as a member of an ethnic or sexual minority.

What if the student in the video were black and accused the instructor of racial discrimination? Would this be depicted, as it is in this video, as if the charge was absurd on its face? Would the student’s threat to have the (presumably untenured) instructor “fired” come across as an empty one, the way it does in the actual video? And if the department chairman in the opening exchange identified the student by asking, “Oh, the black guy?,” would that not be seen–with some justification–as bolstering the charge of discrimination?

Perhaps the most telling part about it is that no one saw the stereotyping of the veteran when the video was first done, and perhaps more telling, the University still doesn’t seem to see the portrayal of the instructor as in any way deserving comment.

Unfortunately, this video seems to gloss over two very real facts.  First, our biases affect the way we view others.  If we have a deep-seated bias against the military, and the war, then it may well spill over into how we view those who participated in it.  And of course, those on the right are just as guilty of this bias–we can easily caricature those “pinko-commie, Birkenstock wearing liberals” and assume we know why they say something, and thus hear something completely different from what they say.

But the second, and perhaps more important, fact, is that soldiers, sailors, marines, and airman are returning from the  war suffering from post traumatic stress disorder.  We need to find good, solid ways of preparing our faculty, staff and friends for those times when these veterans need more than to be “controlled” but cared for, loved, and nurtured back to a healthy life.

I would like to see someone come out and remind faculty that we need to guard against our own prejudices.  Don’t let our own views of how certain people might act result in coloring our interpretation of how they are acting.  And let’s once again let our compassion rule not only our politics, but our daily personal interactions.

So watch the video, and tell me–what bias do you see here?