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Memory and Kent State

The Past is Always Present on May 4

The following has been adapted from the author’s Centennial Alumni Award Lecture, given to the School of Communication Studies at Kent State University on September 22, 2017.

I fell into the field of communications by default because I took a debate class at Miami from a professor who turned out to be chair of the department. I was an English major looking for an easy minor. No one could have been more surprised than I that the class brought out my well-masked killer instincts – I never even came close to losing a debate – and that unleashed talent led to the offer of an M.A. graduate assistantship.

I got married in 1965 – on schedule for those times — and taught for two years at a community college before having my first child, also on schedule. As the revolution simmered around me in the late 1960s I was ensconced in a suburban English Tudor chasing a toddler, which was probably a good gilded cage for me because I had always been so rebellious. Who knows what turns I might have taken had I not been housebound.

My daughter was born in 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive, the My Lai Massacre, Martin Luther King’s assassination in April and Robert Kennedy’s in June; Students at Columbia shut down the university, police brutalized protesters in Chicago at the Democratic National Convention, Doug Englebart unveiled his revolutionary hypertext system, and Yale University announced that it was going to admit women. And I decided that I was going to back to school, since it was the only thing I knew how to do by that time and it seemed to be where the action had moved. Little did I know.

In 1969 I entered a brand new Ph.D. program at Kent State called “Rhetoric and Communication.” It was a bold and innovative experiment at the time when the field had split hard between humanities – the Rhetoric side – and social science – the Communication side – and the two worldviews rarely met in one program. Rhetoric was considered outdated compared to multivariate analysis and other quantitative fashions of the time. But in our program – my cohort included my late beloved pals Dominic Infante and Linda Moore — all students had to demonstrate expertise in both sides of the rhetoric/communication equation, which led to strange clusters like my methodologies that included statistics, computer methods in historiography, and Attic Greek. Greek was the hardest class I ever took, and I sat frozen in the back of the room hoping the kindly professor would not call on me. I wore my B+ from the class as a badge of honor, though I think it was the only “B” I received in grad school. Maybe statistics, too.

Rhetorician Hugh Munro was Director of Graduate Studies and it was under his insistent influence that I started along the rhetoric path. I wrote a paper in summer school on “The Concept of Identification in Aristotelian Rhetoric and Poetic” that earned me the offer of a Teaching Fellowship, so I figured I was pretty good at this thing. The first paper assignment in our Fall Classical Rhetoric Seminar was to opine upon “Forms and Materials of Proof in Aristotelian Rhetoric, Dialectic, and Apodeixis.” It was a brutal but indelible school exercise that sent one all over Aristotle, especially the Organon of logic treatises, which to this day I think I am the only person I know who has read or heard of.

Meanwhile, the ground seemed to be moving under my feet. The first inkling was my newly assigned office-mate, Jim Crocker – my first hippie friend whom I viewed with fascination and alarm. We talked for hours and he was passionately radical and active in campus politics. Since I was a closet radical raised by a Republican family, I was all ears. But about halfway through that year I realized my suburban home life and my increasingly compelling school life had begun to diverge. By the time May 1970 came around, while I can’t say I expected what was going to happen – I don’t think anyone imagined such an atrocity – I had begun to feel that anything could happen: politically, personally, or globally at a time when the American powers that be were barely more than halfway through the murderous slaughter of 59,000 Americans and three million Vietnamese.

I was not on campus Monday, May 4th. I was home with my daughter, when my girlfriend called to say, “What’s going on at that school of yours? They’re killing people.” I had been on campus Friday night to see a play when things got rowdy on Water Street, but it was spring and that was nothing unusual.

I have to interject here to remind you of the media environment of 1970. We had this thing called the telephone, which you couldn’t take with you. (So you never had to say “where are you?” when someone called.) We had typewriters where you had to use special fluid to correct your mistakes and no page of a dissertation could have even a corrected mistake. We had three television networks that had only been broadcasting in color for a few years. We had Walter Cronkite. Cameras were bulky with real film, and for the most part only real photographers carried them. The first reports on May 4th were that the National Guards were killed. It took Mike Lunine, who was a dean here, to get through to Senator Ted Kennedy’s office to report the accurate fatalities. Even then most people thought that the students deserved it, and the lasting image is of an angry “mob” of protestors bunched up threateningly against peach fuzz cheeked soldiers, an image which couldn’t be farther from the truth. When I tell people that the closest May 4th fatality was almost a football field away from the shooters, they have trouble even imagining that.

It is no exaggeration that even though I was not on the scene, in retrospect May 4th deeply changed my life. It is axiomatic in persuasion theory that any single message rarely accounts for much variance in attitudes. For a long time – centuries, maybe – the thinking was one message equals one effect. Paul Lazarsfeld identified the two-step flow in the 1940s and Sam Becker rendered a graphic model in 1970 that illustrated how the source-message-receiver-effect was more complicated than the traditional magic bullet theory. May 4th belied all this – it was a magic bullet for me, though luckily of the psychological and not ballistic type.

Or maybe it’s better described as a ton of bricks hitting me: What just happened? What didn’t I know and why didn’t I know it? What was I missing in my insulated media environment? How could I learn enough to not be blindsided again? I immediately shifted course in my studies to focus on Political Sociology and Social Movements. The questions of May 4th have animated all of my teaching in political communication and my deep love of Vietnam in particular.

While there wasn’t any Eastern communication theory at Kent State to speak of at the time – and no specifically Intercultural Communication — like Ray Heisey my interests eventually turned eastward and I began pursuing more of what I didn’t know and hadn’t learned.

Buddha certainly understood the centrality of communication by making “right speech” part of his noble eightfold way along with right view, right conduct, right mindfulness, right resolve, and others. I especially liked getting to know a bit about Confucius, who had a few things to say about why words matter:

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.

The world of discourse is full of examples where a singular word choice makes a difference and begs for rhetorical microcriticism. For instance, in early April 2000 a letter arrived from an official of the “Kent State 30th May 4th Commemoration Committee.” It read: ‘Dear Dr. Wilder, You are cordially invited to participate as a member of a panel discussion “The Mediated Reality of the Kent State Incident.”’

I did a double take. “Incident?” If we are to consider “mediated reality” let’s look first at the mediating reality of this language. Choosing a word to reference what occurred at Kent State on May 4th, 1970 communicates a great deal about the chooser. We have many possibilities. “Kent State” or “May 4th” alone carry the most iconic status. But from there shades of meaning range widely: do you refer to “it” as an event, shooting, killing, protest, tragedy, murder, massacre, bloodbath? I have often heard it referred to as the “Kent State thing,” which like “incident” erases any trace of substance, fact, or accountability. The choice of “incident” was a dangerous artifact of growing desensitization to state violence paired with a hypersensitivity to politically correct language. My understanding through the 1980s, as arguments raged on campus about monuments and memorializing, was that there was nothing the leadership of the University would like more than to make the whole subject go away. But, of course, it wasn’t going to go away and it seems that we have gotten beyond that to accept the accidental turn of fate that has made Kent State and May 4th a watershed moment in American history.

More recently, I have been thinking about how words matter in Ken Burns’ recent thirty-million-dollar, ten-year project, The Vietnam War. Burns is known for being a centrist and a distinctly American documentarian. He recently said on PBS, regarding the complexity of the Vietnam project, that in his mind “all those shades of grey are able to coexist.” When PBS aired Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam War series in the 1980s, conservatives – meaning those who just didn’t think the U.S. had bombed Vietnam brutally enough – were so outraged that they filmed a rejoinder narrated by Charlton Heston – Moses, no less. This is unlikely to happen with the Burns series, where language was carefully considered and sometimes debated for months. Was the My Lai massacre “killing” or “murder?” “Killing” was the choice – although off camera Burns admits to “murder.” (At least it wasn’t an “incident!”) Did the war end in “failure” or “defeat?” While both are obviously true, “failure” was the choice. You get the point. The less provocative – and less precise — choice always won out.

James Poniewozik writes in the New York Times that “we,” for Burns, “means Americans, because while Mr. Burns and Ms. Novick include many Vietnamese voices, they are ultimately telling American history.” Narrator Peter Coyote intones that the war “began in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence, and cold war miscalculations.” This is a whitewashing if ever there was one, an example as Ian Parker writes in The New Yorker of Burns’ habit of shaping American history “into the form of a modern popular memoir: a tale of wounding and healing; shame and redemption.” The series is a classic instance of Burns’ “wishful patriotism – a soaring appreciation of something that’s not quite there.”

Of particular interest to us, is the report from Poniewozik that “the emotional climax comes in the eighth episode, which culminates in 1970, when the Ohio National Guard troops shot to death four student protesters at Kent State University. The war had already killed thousands upon thousands. But,” Poniewozik writes, “with Kent State, it feels, America had simply broken.”

That brings us back to May 4th for a final naming observation from the text of the Chicago Tribune’s lead article that day. With a title “Troops Fight With Rioters,” it reads: “4 students were shot to death and 15 other persons wounded or injured, four seriously, in a confrontation today between 3,000 students and Ohio national guardsmen and police at Kent State University. A state official reported that the shooting started when a rooftop sniper opened fire on the guardsmen.” Do I really need to continue? How many things are wrong with this picture?

But one more line: “the gunfire broke out as guardsmen dispersed an anti-war rally on the campus.” How does gunfire “break out” like a case of poison ivy? Any accountability or causality is erased by this phrasing. Confucius is weeping.

Carol Wilder is Professor and Dean of Media Studies at The New School, professor emerita at San Francisco State University and a Fulbright Scholar. She is an award-winning filmmaker, as well as the author of Rigor and Imagination: Essays From the Legacy of Gregory Bateson, Crossing the Street in Hanoi: Teaching and Learning About Vietnam, and numerous essays and articles.

Carol Wilder

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