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Another Professor Fired After Another Stupid Tweet

academic-book-glasses

Yet another college professor has been fired after a controversial comment on social media.

WaPo‘s Christine Phillips (“A university professor suggested Harvey was karma for Texas Republicans. Then, he was fired.” – 30 August):

The University of Tampa has fired a visiting professor who appeared to suggest on social media that Hurricane Harvey is karma for Texas for voting Republican.

Kenneth L. Storey, a sociology professor, was immediately slammed on social media after he tweeted this Sunday: ”I dont believe in instant Karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas. Hopefully this will help them realize the GOP doesnt care about them.” Two days later, he was out of a job.

In a statement Tuesday, the university denounced Storey’s comments, saying they were made on his private Twitter account and do not reflect the school’s views.

“We condemn the comments and the sentiment behind them, and understand the pain this irresponsible act has caused,” the university said, adding that other faculty members will take over Storey’s classes. “As Floridians, we are well aware of the destruction and suffering associated with tropical weather. Our thoughts and prayers are with all impacted by Hurricane Harvey.”

Storey, who also hosts a podcast, appears to have since deleted his Twitter account. Earlier, he followed up his initial tweet with two responses before deleting the entire thread, according to the Tampa Bay Times.

On Monday, he tweeted an apology, according to the Times: “I deeply regret the statement I posted yesterday. I never meant to wish ill will upon any group. I hope all affected by Harvey recover quickly.”

Storey told The Washington Post that his intention was to speak about the GOP’s denial of climate change, and he never intended to be offensive.

“I apologize. I never intended it to be taken that way,” he said. “Seeing the suffering of the people of Houston and knowing that I added more suffering to that, that’s heartbreaking to me. We need to do what we can to support them right now, and I do not do that with those tweets.”

He also said he understands the university’s decision to fire him.

“I don’t want others to be harmed by my actions,” he said.

Storey’s Tweet was, as is a hazard of the medium, rather stupid and certainly poorly-timed. But he was expressing, in a profoundly unhelpful way, a perfectly legitimate viewpoint that countless others also expressed on Twitter and elsewhere. And, while one can certainly understand an institution—let alone one in a state that has had more than its fair share of devastation from hurricanes—would want to distance itself from a faculty member whose half-baked utterance started a firestorm, it’s anathema to the notion of academic freedom that is at the core of the university enterprise.

Ari Cohn, an attorney for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which advocates free-speech rights at American colleges and universities, said the organization is investigating Storey’s firing, which he described as problematic.

“The University of Tampa faculty handbook very clearly promises its faculty freedom of expression and academic freedom, which includes the right to speak privately as a citizen on matters important to the individual, so long as there’s no explicit claim that he’s speaking on behalf of the university,” Cohn told The Post.

Cohn said professors should be able to express diverse views and ideas in a public forum. Storey’s firing, like similar ones in the past, sets a dangerous precedent that could force faculty members to be silent for fear of offending people online and getting fired, he said.

Quite right. To be sure, Storey is a sociologist, not a climate scientist. And, as such, he’s on shakier ground claiming academic freedom because he’s speaking as a citizen, not as a scholarly expert on a subject in controversy. Further, as a visiting professor, he presumably has less protection than one on tenure track, let alone one already tenured. Still, this sends the wrong message.

As Cohn notes, Storey’s case is hardly unique.

“Administrators, especially in recent months, have been capitulating to outrage mobs and firing professors left and right because they offended someone,” Cohn said.

In June, Lisa Durden was fired from Essex County College in Newark after she gave a combative interview on Fox News.

“Boo hoo hoo, you white people are angry because you couldn’t use your white privilege card to get invited to the Black Lives Matter’s all-black Memorial Day Celebration,” Durden told anchor Tucker Carlson.

Another professor, Kathy Dettwyler, was fired the same month after she wrote on Facebook that Otto Warmbier, who was taken into custody in North Korea, then fell into a coma and died, was a “clueless white male” who “got exactly what he deserved.”

Cohn said such incidents have become more common because social media has allowed faculty members to amplify their voices and reach a wider audience.

“It also amplifies the voice of the outrage mob that eventually assembles when they offend people,” Cohn said. “If there’s one thing that university administrators are terrified of, it’s a PR disaster. With social media, it makes it much easier to cause a PR disaster. So they’re trying to make the problem go away by making the root of the issue go away.”

Indeed, in addition to giving professors and other public intellectuals an increased opportunity to make fools of themselves in public, it puts non-experts on equal footing with them.

Social media users who commented on the university’s Facebook page have called for Storey’s firing. Several University of Tampa students also have joined the chorus of criticism, saying that as a professor, Storey should have known what not to say in a public forum.

“That was really ignorant of him to say,” Neisha Gamble, a 20-year-old entrepreneurship major, told the Tampa Bay Times. ”Yes, he has free speech, but there are some things you should just keep to yourself. … There are drownings and killings happening. … Don’t wish that upon anyone, and then send a fake apology out.”

Gamble, who is from Houston, said she’s still trying to reach her family there.

“I thought it was pretty messed up,” Patrick Holt, a junior, told the Times. “Twitter’s the area of free speech, and you can say what you want, but there’s an ethical line.”

While professors ought be more careful about what they tweet, their continued employment ought not be subject to whether students and random members of the public like what they say.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He earned a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    From a different angle, I was tempted to say on Facebook that Harvey was Texas’s punishment for electing Trump. But I wouldn’t have been talking about climate change at all, but to poke fun at the idiots who blame natural disasters on teh gheys or abortions or whatever.

    I decided to not post that, but not because people are dying and suffering. It was more because it wasn’t really all that funny, plus I have relatives who would’ve taken it seriously.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 3

  2. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    For years so-called Christians have been blaming all sorts of natural disasters and disease’s on gays and the vile left.
    Can we get rid of them, too?
    Or are the standards different for the left?
    Or for so-called Christians?
    Unlike so-called Christians blaming things on homosexuals…this guy isn’t far from wrong. Republicans deny the overwhelming conclusion of science on climate change. Harvey was amped up due to climate change. Texans vote overwhelmingly for Republicans.
    You reap what you sow.

    Hot debate. What do you think? Thumb up 16 Thumb down 6

  3. Franklin says:

    @Daryl’s other brother Darryl: One might note that low-income people are probably the hardest hit (as usual). Many of them, particularly in Houston, would be Democrats who didn’t vote for Trump.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  4. SenyorDave says:

    During a meeting an old boss of mine told us “Never said an email out that you wouldn’t want to see on the front page of the New York Times.”

    One of the best pieces of business advice I ever got.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 12 Thumb down 0

  5. Daryl's other brother Darryl says:

    @Franklin:
    There are also 50-60,000 Dreamers in the Houston area.
    Having been thru Hurricane Andrew, I am well aware of the havoc these things bring. I do not envy the Houston area, for the next year is going to suck. Big time.
    But the fact remains that Republicans are intent on making these storms worse. Comb-over Donnie is appointing a guy to head up NASA…which conducts breakthrough research on climate science…who is a rabid climate denier.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 1

  6. Kylopod says:

    Besides the issues of academic freedom, I should note that going back at least to the 1980s, it has been a gambit of the right to seize on stories of some liberal or left-wing professor somewhere saying something stupid or offensive, and to present it as evidence of some massive epidemic of intolerance and/or extremism afflicting the left.

    A sociology professor at U. of Tampa. BFD. Our nutcases can occasionally be found on college campuses, yours get elected president of the United States.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 10 Thumb down 1

  7. CSK says:

    What I hate most in these situations (regardless of politics) are the chickensh!t smarmy responses by the authors of such Tweets when they get flack: “Oh, gee, I expressed myself badly!” or “Gosh, I really am so sorry that people misunderstood when I said that I hoped all the Trump voters in Texas would die,” or “I’m so sorry I was misunderstood when I said that God wants all homosexuals to die in agony.”

    Bullsh!t. If you said it, you own it. Have the self-respect to acknowledge that. The only thing worse than a bigot is a slimy bigot groveling to save his or her job.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  8. James Joyner says:

    @SenyorDave: Sure. But that’s a separate issue over whether universities ought operate under that standard.

    @CSK: Meh. Twitter, especially, is a forum that encourages rapid-fire, snarky comments. Every joke that lands poorly isn’t an expression of the author’s deep-studied belief system.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  9. CSK says:

    @James Joyner:

    I have to disagree. If you say it publicly, you own it. And, very often, things one says, or writes, or tweets, in the heat of the moment, do reflect one’s deepest beliefs, whether it’s “God hates fags” or “All Trump voters deserve to die.” I will vehemently oppose censorship–which by definition can only be imposed by the government–but beyond that…you reap what you sow, And a smarmy, patently insincere apology issued solely in order to save one’s employment just doesn’t cut it with me.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  10. steve says:

    Right wing PC.

    Steve

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  11. Kylopod says:

    @CSK:

    And, very often, things one says, or writes, or tweets, in the heat of the moment, do reflect one’s deepest beliefs, whether it’s “God hates fags” or “All Trump voters deserve to die.”

    I’m going to push back on this…slightly. When right-wing Christian fundamentalists declare that God wants you to die or interpret a natural or human-made disaster as divine punishment for homosexuality or whatever, they mean it in a very literal way. The professor’s statement was incredibly mean-spirited and also myopic (because as stated many of the victims of the hurricane weren’t Trump supporters). But it’s pretty clear from the statement (which begins by disclaiming a belief in karma) that it’s intended as snark, not literal truth.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 1

  12. Slugger says:

    I am sympathetic to the professor. One stupid remark should not destroy a career. Every one of us has said something regrettable in our time, and we all deserve one do over in our life. I have actually needed a couple.
    Of course, if the idea of karma has any validity then the administration of the U of Tampa might take note that Irma is coming, and compassion, understanding, and forgiveness are good to have on your side of the ledger. Give the guy a break, and the cyclone might give you guys a break.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  13. Mister Bluster says:

    @Slugger:..Give the guy a break, and the cyclone might give you guys a break.

    The storm will follow it’s course in compliance with the random forces of nature.
    It will not be guided by anyone giving the guy a break…or prayer…or voodoo incantations.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  14. mike shupp says:

    So he said something, maybe. Well, probably.

    But we’re moving into a new and wonderful world where icomputer software is making it easier and easier to produce video clips of just-about-anyone saying just-about-anything, confessing past infidelities and tax cheating and bribe taking and whatever else amuses the maker.

    And what’s your defense if someone with a modern computer and a grudge goes after you, as a budding or established public figure? “I’ve never used the word bribe in my life.” “I never referred to the lovely lady standing beside me as my wife, even during our wedding twenty years ago!” “I never told my college classes that people attempt to avoid paying income tax!”

    But you did, of course, syllable by syllable over the years and clever malicious people (or lazy malicious people with the right sort of software) can put these syllables back together in whatever order they choose and you will have little defense. “If they can show it on TV, you know it’s real,” viewers will say. “If they post it on 4CHAN, you know you can trust it, that’s almost good as being mentioned by Rush!”

    Get the picture? I think this is what the future holds, and telling people to be careful about they happen to say on the internet is not going to be a cure. My suggestion: Let’s just decide the internet is filled with lies and exaggerations and fraud, and no one should be convicted of any offence at all for anything said or displayed or portrayed on it. It’s all fake and none of it can be ever be used in court or be regarded as evidence in a blackmail case or anything else.

    Comments?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  15. Bob The Arqubusier says:

    I was going to join the comments that someone shouldn’t be fired for saying stupid/insensitive things, then I remembered a certain Congressional aide who was stalked, hounded, and harassed (probably threatened, too) for criticizing the Obama daughters’ public conduct until she lost her job. Then I remembered the head of Mozilla who was driven from his job because he donated his own money (not the company’s) to an anti-gay-marriage campaign. And I remembered the labeling of Chick-Fil-A as a “hate company” because their CEO also donated his own money to anti-gay-marriage campaigns.

    So instead I’ll just echo the accepted wisdom here: “freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences.”

    And then I also remember seeing that the particular parts of Texas that got nailed by Harvey went quite strongly for Hillary, and chuckle at this guy’s idiocy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 5

  16. Bob The Arqubusier says:

    …and another example: the Google engineer fired for daring to question “diversity uber alles.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 4

  17. MBunge says:

    So…we’re just going to skip over the stupidity of thinking any individual WEATHER event proves something about CLIMATE change?

    Mike

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 4

  18. george says:

    @Kylopod:

    I agree its snark. However, its generally very hard to tell what is and isn’t snark, and the tendency most of us have is to call it snark if its from someone we generally agree with, and call it meant as literally true if its someone we disagree with.

    This has to be handled absolutely even handedly, with no room for any perception of unfairness, because if intention is ‘interpreted’ it will cause nothing but huge resentment and anger from those on the opposing side.

    I’d suggest a different approach – individual statements/tweets should be treated as snark, no matter who says it. But once there’s a body of statements, showing a pattern, then its to be treated as being meant as literal truth.

    So in this case the prof made a single statement, I’d let it go, just as if the prof had made a single statement about ‘drunken Indians’ (trust me, this happens) or ‘fags’. But if there are repeats then I’d say they’re serious, and I suppose I can’t think of any reason why a private university should put up with that any more than say Google does when some developer makes statements they feel goes against their values.

    So I’d keep that prof on, with a warning. For what its worth, I would have kept that Google developer on with a warning too. But on second offense I’d send them off.

    The whole idea of protecting professor’s speech makes sense if you’re talking about academics – if some biology prof states that say evolution is false (just to use the most ridiculous scientific statement I can think off), because it is in fact a statement about their field, then that shouldn’t be ground for dismissal assuming they can come up with some justification (can’t imagine one for evolution, but who knows, quantum mechanics and relativity would have sounded just as insane in say 1890). If the same prof starts saying that everyone who votes for party X is evil, then a warning, and if repeated then send them off.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. Hal_10000 says:

    The problem with social media is that it allows our dumbest moments to be exposed to hundreds of even millions of people. And because those people don’t know us, they tend to react as though our dumbest moments reflect who we are. If your aunt said something like that, you’d say, “Hey, that’s not funny.” But if a stranger says it, it becomes “BURN THE HERETIC!”

    At some point, if your society is going to function, we’re going to have to have some forgiveness for stupidity on social media.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. Franklin says:

    @MBunge: If it was only about this one weather event … do you know how many 100-year or 500-year storms have happened around the country in the past few years? Statistically, it’s starting to become very improbable.

    According to https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2017/08/did-climate-change-intensify-hurricane-harvey/538158/, Houston, for example, has now seen four 100-year storms in the course of 2.5 years. In case you’re wondering, the odds of that are significantly smaller than 1 in a million.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  21. Kylopod says:

    @george:

    I agree its snark. However, its generally very hard to tell what is and isn’t snark, and the tendency most of us have is to call it snark if its from someone we generally agree with, and call it meant as literally true if its someone we disagree with.

    Not necessarily. I’ve never had trouble recognizing much of the rhetoric of Ann Coulter or Milo as snark. It’s offensive snark, but snark nonetheless.

    In contrast, when you have actual Christian pastors attributing Hurricane Sandy to gay marriage, or rabbis in Israel blaming Hurricane Katrina on the Bush Administration’s support for the Gaza withdrawal, the belief systems of these clergymen makes it abundantly clear these statements are intended in a very literal way. These people truly believe that God uses natural disasters to punish political decisions.

    Is it conceivable there might be some religious liberals out there who hold comparable beliefs about conservatives–say, that a hurricane is literally God’s punishment for racism or regressive tax cuts or whatever? Maybe. But there’s no evidence that’s what the professor here was saying. The runup to his statement–“I don’t believe in instant Karma, but…” is a pretty clear signal not take what follows as a literal belief in religious or spiritual comeuppance.

    Of course none of this means it wasn’t an incredibly stupid and offensive remark. But it’s offensive in the way Coulter or Milo is offensive, not in the way Pat Robertson is offensive. The distinction matters.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  22. wr says:

    @MBunge: Dear Mike,

    This is a thread about a professor being fired. If you’ve decided to take up climate change denial now that you have gone full Trumpie, please wait until there’s an appropriate thread.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  23. wr says:

    @Bob The Arqubusier: “…and another example: the Google engineer fired for daring to question “diversity uber alles.”

    And if you’re going to choose to spend your life sitting in the dark and wallowing in grudges over imaginary slights that have not affected you at all, it’s a lot more convincing if you end every sentence with “My precious…”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  24. Just 'nutha ig'nint cracker says:

    @Kylopod: I wouldn’t make a distinction between the offensiveness of Milo, Coulter, or Pat Robertson, but if you wish to, I will thank you for your greater generosity of spirit–no matter which way that generosity spins. Good comment overall BTW.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  25. Kylopod says:

    @Just ‘nutha ig’nint cracker:

    I wouldn’t make a distinction between the offensiveness of Milo, Coulter, or Pat Robertson, but if you wish to, I will thank you for your greater generosity of spirit

    No generosity of spirit was intended. I’ve already explained before why I think the brand of trolling practiced by Milo and his ilk is in some ways more dangerous than more straightforward expressions of bigotry because it tries to cloak its motivations.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  26. george says:

    @Kylopod:

    You won’t get Christian liberals saying God is casting hurricanes, because that’s not the liberal interpretation of the Christian God. You will however get new age liberals saying that a bad thing without obvious direct connection – say a car accident – is a cosmic karma retribution for some conservative’s actions or words.

    Moreover, the more general case is one of wishing harm or even death for political opponents, whether sent by God in the form of a hurricane or just the Fate’s sending a boulder bouncing down a hill to crush them and possibly their like minded friends and family, and that one occurs across the board.

    And I don’t mean across the board as in both sides do it, I mean this goes far beyond that kind of American centered reference frame to all of humanity and all of history. Cursing your enemy, and hoping (praying, wishing) those curses take hold seems to be a very human trait.

    Differentiating when someone is just cursing to let off steam, and when they truly mean it, is no easy task in general. Which I suspect is why courts don’t take such statements as a sign of literal intention of harm unless there’s some action backing it up.

    Someone could be invoking karma or God or fate because they believe it, or because they think it sounds funny (humor is a very strange thing, often gruesome) or because it releases steam, or because they think it sells well to their followers (which I suspect is the case of most televangelists, because from what I’ve read many if not most live lives that would put them in severe jeopardy if what they reportedly believe was true – that is, they don’t believe what they preach, because they wouldn’t live as they if they did … people who believe in gravity don’t walk off 50 foot cliffs).

    When I was younger I thought I read people well enough to know what they intended by things they said. People were straightforward, as were the world’s problems, and my intuition was infallible. As I got older I realized its not even true for people I know and love well – we’re far too complex for that. They constantly surprise me, for good and for bad, and projecting my interpretations on their words has led to some funny but also some very unfortunate results. How in the world then am I supposed to have a good reading of people I only know from a tweet or fifteen second news blurb?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  27. Kylopod says:

    @george:

    You will however get new age liberals saying that a bad thing without obvious direct connection – say a car accident – is a cosmic karma retribution for some conservative’s actions or words.

    Maybe, but how common is that? I’m sure the vast majority of New Age types are liberal or left-wing, but I don’t think it’s a very large group to begin with–certainly not compared with white evangelicals who constitute a large chunk of the GOP base and who take the divine retribution thing very seriously.

    Differentiating when someone is just cursing to let off steam, and when they truly mean it, is no easy task in general.

    Agreed. If the professor’s statement had been “The hurricane victims are receiving karmic retribution for their support for Trump” or “The hurricane is God’s punishment for Trump,” it would not have been possible to tell conclusively if he was serious or not–at least not without looking into his past and determining whether he was the sort of person to make such a statement in earnest.

    However, his statement went as follows: “I dont believe in instant Karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas.” He very clearly signals that he’s not expressing a literal belief in karmic retribution. It’s still an assholish thing to say, but not in the same way as a preacher or New Age guru interpreting a natural disaster as literally some kind of divine or cosmic retribution.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. george says:

    @Kylopod:

    However, his statement went as follows: “I dont believe in instant Karma but this kinda feels like it for Texas.” He very clearly signals that he’s not expressing a literal belief in karmic retribution. It’s still an assholish thing to say, but not in the same way as a preacher or New Age guru interpreting a natural disaster as literally some kind of divine or cosmic retribution.

    My own suspicion is that he, like 95% of this kind of thing, is just someone letting off steam. But I’ve heard “I’m not racist but … ” followed by some very racist sounding statement to automatically assume that the pre-denial of a statement means its not meant.

    Again, it comes down to knowing the person, and I’ve no way to look into that prof’s heart and mind, so my take would be to as a default say that a single statement by anyone is just letting off steam. Start getting repeats and a pattern and that changes.

    I don’t believe I’m a good enough mind reader to know what someone I’ve never met means by a single statement. And I don’t believe anyone else is either. Single statements are poor guides to a person’s character. Maybe its the engineer in me who wants some sort of statistical significance, but I think its just because I’m old enough to have seen a lot of people say unfortunate things while blowing off steam. Including myself.

    Other than that, I certainly agree there are far more fundamentalists (of any religion) than New Agers, so the karma thing from them isn’t nearly as common. But I don’t see how other conservative Christians’ saying something indicates that a random Christian saying something similar once is proof that that individual meant what they meant. Ten people can say the same thing once and mean ten different things by it. Its when a single individual repeats themself that there’s evidence they (might) believe what they’re saying … the ‘might’ because people lie all the time about almost everything imaginable.

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  29. Kylopod says:

    @george:

    But I’ve heard “I’m not racist but … ” followed by some very racist sounding statement to automatically assume that the pre-denial of a statement means its not meant.

    I don’t think that analogy works. Divine or karmic retribution are belief systems you either accept or reject. They aren’t prejudices you may hold without realizing it. A lot of people say “I’m not a racist but…” because they mistakenly think racism is nothing more than a doctrine, rather than a pattern of thoughts and behaviors that a person may not be consciously aware of.

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  30. Franklin says:

    @wr: When people get all their news from infowars, it’s hard to let reality re-enter their brains. Mike’s gone, just let him go.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  31. george says:

    @Kylopod:

    That’s only partially true. People often say “I’m not a racist but … ” fully knowing that they are racist – the preamble is just a pre-emptive strike. Its the same phenomena as people saying things like: “Its not the lousy five dollars, its the principle of the thing.”, if they want to be repaid for lending money, when in fact it is the five dollars they want.

    I don’t see it as an analogy, but a form of expression used in a wide variety of statements:

    -> Its not ‘X’ followed by something that makes it clear that it might well be ‘X’.

    Sometimes people believe its not ‘X’, sometimes its just people protecting themselves from potential criticism.

    In this case, its quite possible that the professor believes at some level in some sort of karma or universal retribution, but decided to cut off potential criticism with his pre-amble. Its a time honored technique.

    Now if that prof never uses karma again, it’ll be pretty clear that his statement was poetic license or letting off steam, just as if some right wing preacher uses hurricanes as vengeance just once then its clear it will have been meant as poetic licence or letting off steam.

    But given only a single statement, I see no unbiased way to decide it was meant seriously for the prof but not the preacher (or vice versa) ; all such a decision will show is the interpreter’s own bias (ie the person you generally agree with wasn’t serious, the one you generally disagree with was). Confirmation bias is real (happens all the time in engineering too, which is why we tend to trust statistics more than gut feelings about a single, isolated event).

    Best (and fairest) course of action is always to assume a single statement is poorly worded or blowing off steam. People who really hate will repeat themselves quickly enough, removing the doubt.

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