The University of Delaware has cut ties with adjunct professor Katherine Dettwyler over comments she made regarding the tragedy of Otto Warmbier. In a now-deleted Facebook post, Dettwyler wrote that Warmbier "got exactly what he deserved" due to his white, male privilege.
While discussions about privilege, race, and gender must be had in the United States if we are to evolve and keep all Americans safe, they cannot be had at the expense of empathy.
The St. Louis Post Dispatch reported that, just days after Warmbier's death, Dettwyler took to Facebook to express her opinion on the news, calling the young man, “typical of the mindset of a lot of the young, white, rich, clueless males who come into my classes.”
“Is it wrong of me to think that Otto Warmbier got exactly what he deserved? “I see him crying at his sentencing hearing and think, ‘What did you expect?’” she wrote. “These are the same kids who cry about their grades because they didn’t think they’d really have to read and study the material to get a good grade. His parents ultimately are to blame for his growing up thinking he could get away with whatever he wanted. Maybe in the US, where young, white, rich, clueless white males routinely get away with raping women. Not so much in North Korea. And of course, it’s Otto’s parents who will pay the price for the rest of their lives.”
Dettwyler's words are hard to read for their insensitivity, lack of compassion for Warmbier and his family, and also because of the vast disservice they do to the very ideals she is taking a poor stand for. She touches on the culture of rape in America, but then proceeds to use one of its greatest weapons to wound Warmbier's grieving loved ones: victim-blaming.
We must always practice what we preach, otherwise we risk becoming that which we fight against. In a poor attempt at advocating for social justice movements working to change the American landscape for the better, Dettwyler becomes as cold and prejudiced as the jury that refuses to convict an alleged rapist because "the girl was asking for it."
According to the university, Dettwyler will not be re-hired as part of the anthropology department for the upcoming fall semester.
"The comments of Katherine Dettwyler do not reflect the values or position of the University of Delaware," school officials said in a written statement. "We condemn any and all messages that endorse hatred and convey insensitivity toward a tragic event such as the one that Otto Warmbier and his family suffered. The University of Delaware values respect and civility and we are committed to global education and study abroad; therefore, we find these comments particularly distressing and inconsistent with our values. Our sympathies are with the Warmbier family."
Part of having fruitful discussions about misogyny, racial and economic divides in America, and their far-reaching consequences is knowing when to have them. Dettwyler building a case against the entitled mentality some white, wealthy males have on the casket of a young man who was potentially murdered by an abusive, authoritarian regime does not gain allies, but alienates them. Empathy is what keeps humans from becoming monstrous, and it's a key part of building movements that are sustainable and respected.
In her post, Dettwyler asks if it's wrong to think as she does. If she has to ask, rhetorically or sincerely, it most likely is. Self-reflection is a crucial part of being the best human you can be, and it serves as our own set of checks and balances.
It's easy to fall into anger and self-righteousness, but much more powerful to remind ourselves, even when we're in the thick of it, to love.