Even if you’ve had the pleasure of not knowing Steven Crowder — the former actor/comedian and current conservative social media darling — you may have still heard of his video series “Change My Mind,” which regularly pulls millions of views on YouTube. On Jan. 22, Crowder brought his specific brand of infotainment back to UTD for the third time in two years, asking students to change his mind about the proposed border wall. In the aftermath of an unexpected appearance behind the now memetic sign, I got a firsthand experience as to how Crowder’s process works.
Having only found out about Crowder’s appearance as it was in full swing, there wasn’t necessarily time for me to prepare for any kind of interaction. It was a frantic message from a friend, one of those who went out to protest his appearance, that drew me into the fray. When I walked onto the Plinth, my friend was scared, surrounded and being harassed by the crowd while Crowder himself shoved a microphone and camera in their face. After repeatedly saying that they were uncomfortable, I wanted to drag the attention away from them, so I spoke up. I engaged and unwittingly sealed my fate as the newest throwaway face of “snowflake triggering!!!”
The conversation started with me calling out Crowder’s exploitation of emotional labor. Crowder, however, labeled it differently and used it as the pinned comment of our interaction on the Facebook upload of the video, entitled “PROTESTOR SCREAMS Then Rethinks,” as the most chuckle-worthy moment of the day. To clarify my point, it’s important to define emotional labor — a sociological concept that surrounds the work done internally to control one’s emotions in the context of a job, such as a nurse showing compassion to their patients, or a clerk maintaining a smile in the face of a screaming customer. The one regret I have is misusing this term, as I couldn’t think of a better way to describe what Crowder does, which is inspire an emotional reaction in bystanders and then exploit it.
But that was the crux of the conversation. Crowder knowingly does and says inflammatory things, making claims that center on highly emotional issues, such as immigration, gun-control, abortion and so on. And his description of the video — “Let the triggering commence!” — proves the emotions of his interview partners are the focus rather than any kind of fact. In doing this, he’s allowed to make a profit off the emotions of the frequently nameless people responding to his requests for “debates” while they get thrown to the wolves without even the dignity of being named.
During our own conversation, short, choppy, derailing questions peppered the discussion from his end. The most notable moment of the whole video, where Crowder made fun of “emotional labor” to another protestor three feet in front of me, provoked the exact reaction that became the focus of the whole video.
My emotional moment was on the train to capitalization for some dude with a big sign and hastily assembled mob of onlookers. And there was nothing I could do anymore.
Of course, there’s been cyberbullying, or at least attempts at such. YouTube is full of assertions of my being a “soy boy,” less than a man, a “snowflake,” and one person who really thought that saying I should become a BuzzFeed Try Guy was the most scathing thing they could say. But that’s not bothersome, at least to me. The lack of control of my image, and the misinterpretation of such, is the worst, most infuriating part of the experience. If it felt like I had been given a chance to steer the debate, then maybe it would be easier to stomach, but to be reduced to a screaming protestor, only having the benefit of my first name, is the most demeaning thing possible. And it’s a trend in media, especially online media. People turn into memes and jokes all the time and lose their agency. It’s an ethical black hole and, for too long, has been accepted as a facet of the internet. It started on forum boards and image hosting sites, but now it is part of the fully-fledged online media machine.
Being part of this circus has reaffirmed the importance of facts. And when Crowder finally ponied up some facts, the conversation returned to its stated premise — the border wall. But it wasn’t actually about the wall — it never was. Wanting to have an actual discussion about the wall and its effects is admirable, not duping people who have an inkling of interest into being part of some kind of manipulative sideshow for the entertainment of people whose minds have usually been made up already.
Crowder can’t come to UTD without being invited anymore, as he learned when he was asked to leave campus during his first appearance when the sign read, “I’m Pro-Gun: Change My Mind,” and, as was previously mentioned, the College Republicans were responsible for his latest visit. If this is the best that we as UTD students think we can do to facilitate discussion of national issues on campus, I’m issuing a challenge to all of us to do better. To be aware of the human factor that plays into all issues. To not demean those who have an emotional response in the face of genuinely upsetting topics. And to want to have these discussions in a meaningful way rather than near-exploitative.