Anyone who has been on the internet lately has new seen the crazy “bacon-mac-and-cheese college student video.” When I first watched it, I was appalled, confused, delighted, and then sad before being confused again. I thought that it must have been staged, then it couldn’t have been staged. It was simultaneously the worst thing and then the best thing. It might be the end of the universe, but I’m just not sure.
As one might expect, I wanted to drop everything and immediately work on a small edited volume focused on this video. I even invited folks to contribute on the Twitters. No one has taken me up on it which may be a good thing.
At the same time, I felt like I should share my thoughts on why this video is so great and terrible.
1. Entitlement. This is the easy explanation. The 19-year old student, whose name is Luke, felt like he could just walk in there and get mac-and-cheese without even putting down his beer bottle. As an example of student – white, male, student – entitlement or the entitlement of youth, this is worth of outrage. After all, the internet outrage machine is not known for its subtlety and entitlement is low hanging fruit.
2. Carnival. Before I admit to this video being an example of young white, male, college student entitlement (which is almost certainly is in some ways), we should also consider how bizarre it is and ponder the possibility that this even is a kind of ritualized inversion. If this student is entitled, which he probably is, his entitlement did not succeed in getting him his mac-and-cheese. In fact, it seems to have provided a moment of inverted social order where the “lowly” manager at the dining hall who is there to serve the entitled, white, male, youth, refuses to serve the student, and becomes belligerent. The manager hardly remains in his role of service employee (or does he?). The student, on the other hand, has walked into a dining hall with an open beer. This is not only illegal, but remarkably ill-advised (I’m assuming that it violates the university alcohol policies). Now, it’s possible that he’s done this many times in the past and is appalled this time because he can’t get his mac-and-cheese, but the reaction of the crowd and the manager seems to indicate otherwise. The main argument for why he can’t get his mac-and-cheese is that he’s been drinking.
In this context, there is a kind of ritual inversion. The “entitled” student who is in a position where he’s least able to enforce his rights to mac-and-cheese is confronted by the empowered employee who refused to serve a student who is clearly not capable of serving himself. Strange days!
3. The Manager. The manager is the most bizarre figure in the entire video. On the one hand, we can celebrate his unwillingness to bend when confronted with a drunk, belligerent, and hungry student. He has policies and he is literally willing to go the floor to enforce them. He stands up to abuse, keeps his composure, and only resorts to physical violence when he feels threatened.
At the same time, he is responsible for this scene escalating. First, he refused to give the student mac-and-cheese which, we are led to assume, might immediately de-escalate the situation. Next, he continues to engage the student. Anyone who has regular contact with students knows the “two email rule.” Basically it states that if you’re having an argument with a student (over email), it should be limited to two emails. A third email will only result in escalation and will almost never produce a mutually acceptable resolution to the conflict. (This is a version of the Mark Twain’s quip (who I believe is quoting J-Zed in this instance): “a wise man told me don’t argue with fools because people from a distance can’t tell who is who.”)
Finally, and he clearly recognized that the kid – a 19 year old – was intoxicated and walked into the dining hall with an open bottle of beer. I’ve been around college students to know that if a student walks into a public space with an open bottle of beer, then opportunities for reasoned conversation are likely to be very limited. Why this manager escalated this confrontation to physical violence after he claims to have called the cops is beyond me (actually, it’s not, see below). It is interesting that the manage may have bluffed and says that someone has been called at about the 1 minute mark of the video and tells the student that he has 2 minutes before they arrive. The cops don’t arrive until the very end of the 9 minute video. At the same time, he keeps telling the student that he should just leave. (In effect, run from the cops). There is clearly something more going on here, and I suspect it speaks to the blurry lines between official justice (i.e. the police, the courts, and the laws) and campus justice (i.e. administrative rulings, disciplinary boards, and policies). The first threat that the manager issues was not jail, a fine, or even physical violence, but the threat of expulsion. Campus has its own rules.
4. The Fight. Part of what is going on is that our carnival moment, the moment of ritual inversion where the servers refuse to serve and the entitled do not get what they expect, breaks down the basic set of social rules that dictate this kind of interaction. The Manager did not call the police, so the student – as much as he was functioning in a rational way at all – recognized that he maybe could still get his mac-and-cheese or it was at least possible for him to protect his role in the interaction.
When that reality became less and less possible, violence erupts and the student ends up being pinned on the floor by a burly cook. The cook issued warning shots, though, yelling twice “Don’t touch my boss.” It would seem that the relationship between the manager and the cook involved a remarkable degree of loyalty. If we consider the situation as having (a fraught and fragile) element of carnival to it, then perhaps we can see a kind of class consciousness here erupting onto the scene. The cook realizes that his boss is in danger, but doesn’t see his boss. Instead he sees the limits of their autonomy as service employees being overrun by this belligerent teen-ager. That might account for why the manager or the cook continued to escalate the scenario while waiting on the police. This was not a fight between the police and the student, or even civil society and the student, this was a fight between those who serve and those who are served. With the fight we see the emergence of class consciousness forged in the crucible of daily interactions with an entitled generation of white, college, man-boys.
5. The Video. The arhythmic poetry (almost a dance) of the entire scene immediately made me assume that this was an elaborate fake. It was something that a professor, someone like my clever buddy Paul Worley, would produce for a class on performance, class consciousness, and colonial engage (or something). (Worley once staged an mock confrontation during a research presentation where students planted in the audience confronted a speaker (who was in on the act) during a presentation to explore (among other things) the potential for shared authority between the audience and the speaker. It was sweet).
The manager, the student, and the cook recognize that they are on video. In fact, at one point Luke looks at the camera and says “This is getting posted somewhere, and you’re gonna look like a fuckin’ tool.” The manage responds “That’s fine” and both of them ham it up for a second for the camera. For most of the engagement both parties know (as much as the student is capable of “knowing” in his impaired state) that they are being filmed. To be completely fair, the manager and the student had already appealed to the crowd a few seconds before by asking the crowd to support their positions in the argument. Realizing that they’re being recorded, then, reifies their roles as performers in the actual confrontation. Being filmed invariably limits the roles that these two individuals can take. The rest of the video blurs the line between the actual confrontation and the performance of the confrontation even after the exercised cook yells “Show’s over” while pinning the student to the floor. The audience is as much a part of this performance as the cook, the manager, and the student. It is a show.
6. Community. Perhaps the performative aspect of the confrontation is what kept the audience – which appears to consist mainly of students off-camera – from becoming involved. A couple students attempt half-heartedly to convince Luke to leave and try to de-escalate the physical confrontation, but their efforts are as weak as they are ineffective. If the cook’s shout “Don’t touch my boss,” represents the moment class consciousness emerges, then the reluctance of other students to become involved in the confrontation suggests that any unified understanding of “entitlement” is not so clearly formed that it would motivate bystanders to defend a fellow entitled student’s rights. I’m not sure that this video makes clear a pervasive sense of entitlement toward which internet commentators have directed their outrage. Or if there was a sense of entitlement, it was not strong enough to motivate students to act to defend Luke’s rights to mac-and-cheese.
On the other hand, the efforts by the audience to defuse the situation were weak. They watched, the recorded, and they were clearly amused and shocked as things spiraled out of control, but they didn’t surge to the defense of the manager or grab their increasingly vulnerable “bro” and remove him from the situation. This video is hardly an advertisement for “bro” culture.
7. The Police. Once the student is on the ground and the police intervene, then video gets even more bizarre. The cop asks the student if the hand-cuffs are too tight and then unlocks and adjusts the hand-cuffs. Clearly the cop knows that he’s being filmed (or assumed it, as perhaps he should on any college campus). This concern for the comfort of a belligerent, intoxicated, student is shocking to the viewer. It both reinforces the sense that this student is a teenager and justice for those struggling with adulthood should be gentler (unless, of course, you’re black, then it’s swift and violent). Even if we can argue that most of the video presents, at best, an ambiguous commentary on student entitlement and privilege, the interaction with the cop certainly does. Until Luke spits on the manager, who bizarrely was still standing by as if to ensure that the cop did his job, the cop was firm, but polite. After the spit, the cop pushed the student roughly out the door.
The video is many more things, of course, and deserves a more thorough, theoretically informed, and detailed consideration. It is also sad. The kid apparently was kicked out of the University of Connecticut because of this (and perhaps other incidents). Apparently this was not the first time that he behaved aggressively while drinking. There is every indication that these confrontations represents bigger problems.
We don’t know much about this student other than his arrest records and this video, and it’s easy to judge him because many of us have seen similar confrontations fueled by alcohol and youth, and it’s easy to reduce him to a type. I hope that he has a chance to sort himself out.