Few phenomena of modern life are more inane than an accidental inter-office reply-all. And yet, the Amherst campus reacted passionately to Biddy’s school-wide email: “This is the wrong version. What happened, Pete?” On Facebook and via text message, to neighbors in class and among chatting friends in Valentine, we all — the whole campus in unity — pounced on Biddy’s email, recognizing it for its comedic gold. Unsatisfied with the competition for friends’ laughs and Facebook likes, students organized a protest in support of Pete. Mimicking all the trappings of a real campus protest, these mock-activists marched on Biddy’s house and plastered Val with posters. The next day, Biddy announced Spring Concert on YouTube, cheerfully teasing herself about the mistaken reply-all, even claiming she was banned from using email.
This bizarre series of events demands explication. A population inspired to spontaneous action is a culture in need of interpretation, especially when that population is as splintered as Amherst’s and the source of inspiration as trivial as an email. Disoriented by last week’s seemingly inexplicable events, my friends and I argued in search of meaning.
Among my friends, the best arguments are usually the loudest. Like news pundits, we see evidence and thorough argumentation as impediments to quick analysis. On Twitter, this interpretative style assumes its ultimate form: the hot take. After a news event, revolutionary or inconsequential, pundits compete for the cleverest and most contrarian view. In search of meaning, my friends and I competed for the hottest take.
Hot Take #1: Biddy’s email unmasked her grandmotherly image, revealing her to be a bureaucrat no different than Suzanne Coffey. What could be more bureaucratic than an inter-office email? After four years in office, presiding over numerous scandals, Biddy remains more popular than her subordinates. If the administration discloses housing shortages or changes to Title IX policy, then the deans sign the bottom of the school-wide email. However, you can be sure that Biddy will announce every Fall Festival and Winter Carnival. Biddy desires to be the approachable public face of the school. She’s the president who hilariously takes selfies and always has time for you in office hours. Even the decision to go by the nickname Biddy shapes her brand. To her dismay, the reply-all provided unfiltered proof of her true character. Biddy’s tenure as grandmother-in-chief was over. The revelation of this unsettling political death set off a campus in need of leadership. The funereal protesters mourned their fallen leader and each Facebook joke transparently hid the dull pain. Just as quickly, the Spring Concert announcement marked the rebirth of Biddy’s grandmotherly image. In on the joke and reminding us of her poor email skills — just like Grandma! — she restored her image as our adorable president who dances to T-Pain.
Hot Take #2: An only mildly amusing email enthralled our fractured campus because we so desperately crave unity. Last year, a wandering moose inspired a campaign for a new college mascot. Our Amherst bubble is so enveloping and stale that the student body rabidly consumes any and all fresh news. In our social order, every possible action is subjected to over-analysis. A student’s choice of sport, major and dining hall seat is scrutinized as a political decision. Biddy’s reply-all shocked the system. It was something new, an event independent of our oppressive politics. We all saw the opportunity to make a joke — the same joke — and come together for just a moment without our peers’ judgment.
Hot Take #3: The reply-all email, the subsequent protests and the administration’s response were a perfect case study in how campus activism gets co-opted. At the 2012 Day of Dialogue on sexual assault, campus administrators sat perched on stage, overlooking staff and students below. Sitting in the front row, protesters aimed to express their dissatisfaction with the administration and the event. Instead, Biddy sanitized and co-opted the protest. She invited the students to march through the aisles of folding chairs, but just for a minute before they had to quietly take their seats. Biddy’s response to the #StandUpforPete protest was just another play from the same playbook. The administration always positions itself as with the protesters, always ready to be in on the joke. Likely, Biddy asked Pete to attend the protests to prevent any dissent deemed improperly unruly or any more negative press mentions in the New York Times. To understand the reply-all, you only have to ask yourself if Biddy or the administration has lost any power since the scandal. In just 24 hours, the school veered from scandal to protest to the administration’s masterfully subversive response. Remember, the administration will never give up power without a fight.
Hot Take #4: What if Biddy sent the reply-all on purpose? This contrarian take is almost certainly not true — but what if it is? Everyone assumed that the reply-all was accidental, but maybe that’s the best argument for its strategic brilliance. Consider: Is your opinion of Biddy more or less favorable than before you received her email? The so-called email fiasco masterfully distracted the student body from this college’s real scandals. As further evidence, the Spring Concert announcement that joked about Biddy’s reply-all was released just the day after the so-called accidental email. Was there really enough time to write and release this video without prior knowledge of the reply-all?
Hot Take #5: The over-analysis of Biddy’s reply-all and the subsequent events demonstrates that Amherst students are merely snarky observers, too willing to bullshit unthoughtful interpretations. Amherst students are taught to write persuasive arguments, but remain apathetic and distant from substantive participation. For four years, I have argued every possible point of view about my classmates, my professors and our campus culture. But I have never attended a protest — not for sexual assault, nor black lives, nor climate change. In just a few short weeks, I will graduate, and I am scared that in the real world I will be judged less on my snarky hot takes and more on my ability to contribute meaningful change.