As Cho Seung-Hui is relentlessly scrutinized by a barrage of experts, all who seem to agree he was “angry” and “disturbed” and had “severe mental problems,” I am reminded that biblical prophets were frequently described as mad. I use prophet here less in the sense of seer and more in the sense of cultural commentator. If I remember my lessons from bible school, prophet means one who speaks the truth about the present.
In our rush to diagnose, we might miss his valid claims about the nature of American campuses. College can be incredibly isolating and alienating, especially for those who may not revel in their social privilege.
Cho’s video, listened to carefully, is less the ranting of a mad person, and more, well, bad poetry. The poetry itself seems familiar: it articulates a deep sense of wounding turned into rage. It indicts the particular ways wealth is flaunted. But it’s not simply that wealth is flaunted; it is that such flaunting is often accompanied by acts that denigrate less privileged students.
Inarticulate though he might be, and I say again, the poetry is quite bad, Cho describes a campus atmosphere that I know well. Instructors frequently complain about students’ sense of privilege. And, one needs only to spend a few hours on many American campuses to recognize the explicit class dynamics. Students may attend the same classrooms, but once instruction is done, class-based groups reconsolidate.
By no means do I advocate violence as a solution to class-based isolation. But I am extremely wary of discounting his statements as the delusions of an angry and possibly crazy young man. We need to pay attention to the ways American campuses mediate and translate class privilege.
Of course, none of the coverage I am following takes any of his claims seriously. I take this absence as emblematic of the continual way class difference is effaced to maintain a façade of equality.