Josh Bergeron: Public square extends to digital world, too

Published 12:02 am Sunday, October 25, 2020

Would you shout it on the Square in downtown Salisbury?

The popularity of social media and that it allows people to create their own echo chambers has encouraged an indulgence in language that treats people with differing viewpoints and life experiences as less than human. “Likes” and reactions, in particular, create the permission structure for this sort of language when it would be completely unacceptable during an in-person encounter.

It’s particularly unfortunate when people in positions of influence use language that demeans and degrades others and make no effort to have an honest discussion about differences.

Last week, several readers contacted the Salisbury Post about a widely shared Facebook post that did exactly that — checking all the boxes for pushing rhetoric too far.

In the social media post, an unnamed woman was stereotyped for her hair color, skin color and weight as well as for the fact that she was open carrying what appeared to be a pistol, apparently supported President Donald Trump and was a reportedly a cigarette-smoker. There were several perceived characteristics, too, like being annoying, “country,” privileged, “small-minded” and uneducated.

“Will these freaks crawl back under their rocks when Trump loses so we can be spared having to deal with them?” the post stated, appearing to judge a book by its cover.

The post was made by Seth Holtzman, a Salisbury resident. His apparent affiliation with Catawba College was most troublesome to readers who contacted the Post.

“It’s not acceptable for someone to say these sorts of things when their job is to teach our children,” wrote one reader.

“Please ask Catawba College whether they agree with this sort of statement,” wrote another.

Last week, the school’s website identified Holtzman as the chair of the Religion and Philosophy Department. By Saturday, after hearing from the public about the topic, the school altered the staff list for the department to place a “retiring faculty” header above a brief biography that was also updated. Senior Vice President Jared Tice said Holtzman is a Catawba College faculty member who’s officially retiring at the end of December. The college said Holtzman is “a non-teaching faculty member who has no Catawba-sponsored interaction with students.”

“He has not taught a course at Catawba this calendar year,” Tice said in response to a Post request.

The school’s statement also said, “The views expressed do not align with Catawba’s Mission and Values, which seek to unite a diverse population of students, faculty, and staff.”

I didn’t approach this column with the intent to shame a private citizen. Sometimes, the role of a newspaper is to dispel rumors about local topics and, as our weekly Ask Us feature shows, answer reader questions. So, before I heard from Tice, I sent Holtzman messages asking to confirm the authenticity of the post of which I had only seen screenshots. At the time, as the school’s website indicated, it appeared he was a department head — a position of authority in which statements like Holtzman’s carry more weight.

Holtzman was quick to respond to my message, calling within two minutes. He confirmed the authenticity of the post and said he had removed it. I asked him about his language, the deepening political and social divide in America and whether it was OK to make assumptions about someone from an unpleasant coffee shop experience. Holtzman said he didn’t want to speak specifically about the post he made because of the threat of a lawsuit, but told me that he had “evidence” to back up the descriptions he espoused. He said the Republican Party has demonized the other side for years and that “some of us have had enough” in addition to some other things I won’t repeat in this space.

The unfortunate reality is that Holtzman is far from alone. Too many people view their fellow Americans with differing viewpoints as evil, and that can’t continue if the country, state and community hope to heal divides that have grown wider. The public square is no longer just a physical space; it’s a digital one, too.

If you wouldn’t shout statements like Holtzman’s on the Square in downtown Salisbury, it’s best to abstain entirely.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.