Professor Removed From Teaching For Sharing A Downfall Parody Video

from the context,-people dept

If you’ve been on the internet for basically any length of time, you probably know about the Downfall parody videos, sometimes referred to as the “Hitler Finds Out” videos. These are videos that take a clip from a 2004 German movie about the final days of Hitler, and post over them English subtitles of Hitler getting angry over… just about anything. We wrote about it a decade ago, and while the Downfall parodies have become somewhat less common these days, it’s still a bit surprising that anyone might be offended by them.

But, alas, in a yet another (more real world) example of how content moderation is impossible to do well, a popular senior lecturer of accounting, Catherine West Lowry, at UMass Amherst was removed from her teaching role after a student complained that she showed a Downfall parody about accounting made by a former student to the class (found via Reason.com).

To make the class more fun, Lowry had long offered students extra credit for producing entertaining or “fun” videos about concepts in the accounting class, and someone back in 2009 (at the height of the Downfall parody popularity) made this one about accounting concepts and the class:

On November 12th, Lowry showed that video to the class after some students asked her to share a video:

?The point was to engage students in an otherwise dry and difficult subject material,? Lowry said. ?Accounting is really a foreign language for so many of these students.? The videos, she added, have proved ?very successful with bonding with students,? and instructors at other colleges across the country have used them in their own classes.

Lowry occasionally shows past videos in class as a way of introducing a concept to students, but she hadn?t planned to do so on November 12. Still, a few students asked her to show a video at the start of class, she said, and the Downfall clip was relevant to the day?s lesson. ?So I did it, and they clapped and loved it. And that was that,? Lowry said.

However, at least one students was offended. While none of the articles specifically describe what was seen as offensive about the video, it is implied heavily that someone took offense to the idea of showing Nazis/Hitler in class (not that the video or movie in any way glorify Nazism or Hitler). And rather than recognize that perhaps someone was overreacting, the Dean decided to yank Lowry out of class, which appears to have upset many of her students:

On November 14, Lowry sent an email to her students apologizing for the incident. ?I want to apologize to any student who was offended by the Hitler xcredit video on Tuesday. My intent was never to offend or upset anyone. I was unaware of what was going on on campus,? Lowry wrote, according to a copy of the email provided by a student. ?While I?ve received hundreds of wonderful, thoughtful, creative videos over the past 11 years, this issue, along with an earlier issue this semester, has caused the end of these extra-credit videos.

?I truly am sorry,? she continued, ?and I have never wanted to offend or hurt any of my students. Your success and happiness is most important to me.?

Massey, the dean, briefly spoke to the class the next time it met. She announced that another Isenberg professor would take over teaching for the rest of the semester, according to three students The Chronicle spoke with. Some students shouted, ?Bring back Cat,? a reference to Lowry?s first name. Eventually, several dozen students walked out in protest.

While some are arguing that this is another example of over-sensitive students, it’s not clear that’s the case at all (given that it appears many of the students were perfectly fine with this, and it was potentially the administration that overreacted). But, more to the point, it once again highlights the “impossibility” of content moderation, even in real life, rather than just on the internet. A key point that we’ve made about content moderation is that context matters, and everyone has different context, or may not be fully aware of the cultural context around any particular content.

That’s likely the case here. The offended student(s) perhaps were completely unaware of the Downfall parody meme, and simply reacted to a professors showing a film depiction of Hitler. Without the wider context — and adding in the other context of a rise in Neo Nazism — I can see how someone may have overreacted. The real issue, then, is that the administration failed to be the cooler heads that prevailed, and defaulted to removing the professor from teaching. Also, as the Reason piece notes, since UMass is a public school, there are 1st Amendment implications in punishing her over speech.

In the end, it really does seem that the University and, in particular, Dean Anne Massey, should have been able to come up with a much more reasonable approach here. Merely notifying Lowry that at least one student was offended, seems like it would have been more than enough to keep things in perspective. Indeed, Lowry has said as much:

?I was shocked when this came out.? Had a student expressed concern, she said, ?I would have been mortified. I would have addressed it. I?m not trying to make some statement here.?

But, rather than understand that and understand the context, the University and the Dean went to an extreme position instead.

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Comments on “Professor Removed From Teaching For Sharing A Downfall Parody Video”

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54 Comments
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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: No reaction like a knee-jerk reaction

Compared to some of the off-color Nazi jokes out there in mainstream media, that one could probably still pass as Aryan…

Honestly, I’m rather impressed. It takes skill to take four minutes of Hitler throwing a tantrum, sub over it with jokes, and not only limit yourself to a single Nazi reference (as far as I could count; maybe one slipped past me), but to fit it in so well with the overall, decidedly non-Nazi theme.

I’d be concerned to see what those offended by this video think of the upcoming Taika Waititi/ScarJo film, Jojo Rabbit… let alone the groovy flick known as Kung Fury.

Maybe not the best choice for display in a classroom, sure, particularly if it just happened to be a random video that had been shared online, or if we were talking about middle schoolers. But it was created by a college student of that same course, as part of the course. Hard to come up with more mitigating circumstances than that.

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
David says:

Re: No reaction like a knee-jerk reaction

I suspect the part of the video that is hard to argue where a student, especially one of Jewish descent might take offence is the Chambery bits.

You are assuming that the offense was at spreading Nazi ideology rather than at making fun of a white supremacy idol.

There just isn’t enough information for that conclusion. And the approach of notifying an authority for correcting unappreciated utterings is not typically Jewish, even though the outlet of "Yiddish humor", sadly dying along with Yiddish culture, is dying out and is not as much reliant on actual religion but rather the kind of standing Jews had in medieval and later mostly European societies.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: No reaction like a knee-jerk reaction

This.

Just someone being an ass, i would expect. And the uni went for it, beyond and semblance of reason. That takes some pro-grade asshatter

I also don’t understand where simply "offended" is currency for anything. It’s usually the label thrown at people who have a bit of a deeper issue (with reason) than being merely offended, in order to downplay their concern or reaction, while at the same time pretending their reaction was excessive.

AricTheRed says:

Re: Re: Re:2 No reaction like a knee-jerk reaction

By the way, I agree with all of you.

I’m generally of the opinion that If, especially in a case like this, you were offended, one needs to grow-the-fuck-up, it is an offensive world out there.

Also, I’d not considered the New Aryans (Isn’t that a band name?) might be offended either. Guess I need to open up to new ideas.

Anonymous Coward says:

We had a professor, 40 years ago, in graduate school who would come to class and read verbatim the appropriate chapter from the text book.

He marched in military rigid, read the text, and left military rigid. No questions. No answers.

Word for word from the text book.

No student interaction at all. Not much a professor as far as teaching.

But! One very smart individual about keeping his job in a politically correct world.

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

This is why I use “personally considerate” instead of “political correctness”:

I appreciate considerate people. It’s important to be grateful for whatever good we find in the world.

Even if someone is overzealous in their consideration, at least they’re kind enough to consider others in the first place.

Eh, that depends on how. Suggestions such as as "Bow to people who look a bit South Asian and say ‘Konichi Wa’" are best ignored. It basically means, "All you people look the same to me."

2016’s #SafetyPin movement was well-intentioned but people don’t like being patronised. The lulz when people of colour decided they didn’t want earnest, well-meaning liberals frantically signalling their not-a-racist virtue to sit with them on the bus, etc… would have been recorded for posterity had James Melville not culled their responses, leaving only 16 mostly positive responses. It’s dishonest and paternalistic at heart. Maybe cis -male-identifying parent figure doesn’t know best, after all.

Damn, I wish he’d left those comments up. I believe they rank with the Bic Pink pen reviews for unintentional hilarity.

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:7 Re:

Sometimes it is mere virtue signalling. It’s the woke go-to for saying "I’m not a racist, but…" See 2016’s #SafetyPin campaign for details. I don’t need anyone to notice by basic human decency. I’m either decent or I’m not and it’s for the people I interact with to make that evaluation, not the woke and the right-on.

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 Re:

"Political correctness" is what basic human decency is called by people who have none.

Political correctness may wear the sheep’s clothing of "basic human decency" but it’s actually the wolf of division and dog-whistle racism and exclusionism. It presents "protected groups" as easily triggered snowflakes who take offence at everything, without bothering to consult with them before choosing the nom du jour for them. That’s how the British father of a child whose mother is African-American was frostily informed, "It’s dual heritage" when he described his child as "Mixed race." Ask people how they prefer to be described, don’t label them and order everyone else to adopt that label without consulting them. And don’t presume they’re offended by Christmas, etc. Many of my Muslim and Sikh friends celebrate it.

Why push political correctness when basic human decency will do?

Talmyr says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

It would help if the obnoxious end of the Right didn’t call every attempt at human decency and respect "political correctness" or "wokeness". "Woke" as an insult is rapidly turning into as good a label as a complaint of "political correctness" as to the user’s wish to retain the ‘right’ to insult and belittle people, as well as a good bit of science denialism and red panic.

Scary Devil Monastery (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

"It doesn’t, but he’s right regardless: “Politically incorrect” is an excuse for bigotry and cruelty. You can discuss politics without using racial slurs and anti-queer rhetoric."

I vastly prefer it when the racists and bigots are free to call a spade a spade…rather than hide their agenda behind a respectable veneer of civility.

Back when the neo-nazis of sweden were free to say exactly what they thought not a single one of their parties made it in politics no matter HOW bad things got. Today? Their "politically correct" party made it to the top three because of voter apathy.

It’s easier to get a political speech past the sheep in the electorate when what you speak of in public is "multiculturalism" and "the hazards of conflicting cultures" rather than the traditional spiel of racial and cultural supremacy.

And the problem is that what we call "hate speech" only means we prevent people from saying that which is objectionable to us. We don’t stop them, even for a second, from carrying out an agenda of hatred. You can’t seriously discuss apartheid law in the west. But it’s easy enough to get political support for much the same legal functionality if you wrap it into a sufficient amount of polite and proper language.

I’d like to present Denmark as the case example where, in reality, you are either an ethnic caucasian dane or a second-class citizen today.

Political correctness and hate speech laws is social codeine, the overdose of which means your cancer goes untreated until it’s far too late.

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

I vastly prefer it when the racists and bigots are free to call a spade a spade…rather than hide their agenda behind a respectable veneer of civility.

^This. It annoys me when people are dishonest. Sometimes they don’t even realise they’re being racist as such, they’re either going with the flow. But people, I tell you, if you ever want to reassure people who are different to you that you know what’s best for them, you’re a damn racist.

Back when the neo-nazis of sweden were free to say exactly what they thought not a single one of their parties made it in politics no matter HOW bad things got. Today? Their "politically correct" party made it to the top three because of voter apathy.

That’s why I’m not keen on censorship.

It’s easier to get a political speech past the sheep in the electorate when what you speak of in public is "multiculturalism" and "the hazards of conflicting cultures" rather than the traditional spiel of racial and cultural supremacy.

Their whole goal is to appear to be respectable and to make their hatred and intolerance mainstream. Alas, they’re succeeding.

And the problem is that what we call "hate speech" only means we prevent people from saying that which is objectionable to us. We don’t stop them, even for a second, from carrying out an agenda of hatred. You can’t seriously discuss apartheid law in the west. But it’s easy enough to get political support for much the same legal functionality if you wrap it into a sufficient amount of polite and proper language.

I’d like to present Denmark as the case example where, in reality, you are either an ethnic caucasian dane or a second-class citizen today.

That’s the same in every Western country, I’m afraid. My black friends from church were complaining about the way the level of racism has increased since Brexit. They’re seeing it everywhere and what they really hate is people pretending to care about them when they actually don’t.

Political correctness and hate speech laws is social codeine, the overdose of which means your cancer goes untreated until it’s far too late.

Hate speech laws can also be re-purposed to fit a hate agenda if the haters can present themselves as a protected group. We’ve seen that in Poland’s laws forbidding people to discuss the role of Poles in the Shoah.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Tenure seems to be demonstrating problems in both existence and nonexistence. The competition has long been known for petty sniping inspired by limited seats, insane pushes to get it with marginal true quality but without its protections people get steppee on for going against the grain. It is an awkward construct, effectively contractual quasi-property as it cannot be sensibly bought or sold but has value which limits choices . but that isn’t unusual in employment structuring – sole proprietorships are the unusual ones in lacking this aspect.

Clearly we can’t just get rid of it without an adequate replacement given its own set of problems. I suspect a universalized list of protections could make a good stand in but the mechanism would be problematic. A union or council type structure could work against some abuses but leaves itself open to "office politics" purges for example.

This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it.

techboycorp (profile) says:

Sorry to break in

But I had to share this with all of you. Simpsons producer Al Jean has shown a video of Okilly Dokilly‘s “White Wine Spritzer” over the credits of the 659th ep of the simpsons.

Go to https://getpocket.com/explore/item/they-started-a-ned-flanders-metal-band-then-the-simpsons-called

To get the full story

We now return you to your comments, which are in progress

This comment has been deemed insightful by the community.
Stephen T. Stone (profile) says:

Re:

No one gave Mel Brooks a hard time when he developed springtime for Hitler in the Producers.

Brooks was mocking Nazi sympathizers. He intended to portray the character who wrote “Springtime for Hitler” as someone to be pitied at best, loathed at worst, but always laughed at regardless. A Jewish comedian may have an upper hand on writing such material, all things considered, but even gentiles can mock Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. The Downfall parodies tend to prove that notion.

Wendy Cockcroft (profile) says:

Re: About the video

We still don’t know who was offended or why. If you can’t show Hitler throwing a tantrum without getting offended by it instead of laughing your socks off, what is that about? He wasn’t being glorified. As one of the resident wags suggested, it could have been a right-winger who didn’t like to see Der Fuhrer being denigrated.

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