By Mina Shah
There’s been a lot of student activism on and off campus this year and, as a result, a lot of talk at Stanford about “increasing dialogue” and creating an “open, inclusive campus culture.” We’re very worried about making sure the voices of our moderates don’t get silenced by the boisterous radicals. And really, it is important that everyone gets to speak in conversations about race, class, gender, identity and oppression on campus.
People have been expressing their opinions on a multiplicity of forums. There have been countless articles in The Stanford Review, The Stanford Political Journal, Stanford Magazine and The Stanford Daily on activism and related issues, like students’ conceptions of and opinions about race, class and gender as they exist and function in modern society. People also express their thoughts in other, less formally constructed forums, such as email threads, Facebook posts, Tweets and in-person conversations (what a concept!).
There exists, however, another group of “conversations” that are happening. I cannot call them conversations in earnestness, though, because this group contains people posting online and on various social media platforms anonymously. YikYak is a social media platform on which people can post thoughts without their name attached. There are also several other ways to publish thoughts anonymously, such as by commenting on a news article with a pseudonym or creating a Facebook page like Stanford Macroaggressions and not identifying yourself as a manager.
All of these different platforms for anonymous commenting have caused a whole host of problems. They have also been disappointingly illuminating with regard to the courage (or rather lack thereof) and the abhorrent ignorance of Stanford students.
I’m not personally on YikYak, but have been shown screenshots of extremely aggressive, even violent comments made toward women in particular sororities. There are people expressing misogynistic sentiments, some telling jokes and making comments that are overtly racist, while others stick to microagressions. In the days after the protest in which 68 students blocked the San Mateo Bridge, the scores of nasty thoughts had significant negative impacts on the already fragile mental states of many of the protestors.
Commenting from behind a curtain of anonymity can seem really attractive. You can say whatever you want without any consequences. That’s what it seems like, anyway. In reality, you can say whatever you want without any consequences that affect you. The Internet and social media are not your personal diary. Other people can read that. I have some news for you: you’re not funny. You’re not witty. You’re not speaking from a place of well-thought out, well-supported or even well-meaning ideas. Posting from a place of anonymity doesn’t make your thoughts valid or true. And if you’re not careful about what you’re writing, you can seriously hurt some people.
Clearly, you know that your comments are ignorant. Or at least that they are provocative. If you didn’t understand that, you wouldn’t post your opinion anonymously. There wouldn’t be any negative valence associated with attaching yourself to an opinion that is factually backed or one that isn’t controversial. It’s a start that you recognize that what you’re saying could be challenged, but this isn’t enough.
In an attempt to use this university experience to become a productive, highly functioning adult in society, you should welcome critique. You can’t improve as a human if you’re not challenged, and you can’t be challenged if you don’t give people the opportunity to do so. And you’re doing everyone else a disservice by automatically shutting down any potentially productive conversation they might have had with you.
I believe in freedom of speech as much as anyone. I’m not going to hit you over the head with the age old adage: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” If you want to say things that aren’t nice go ahead and do it. If you want to be overtly racist or classist or misogynistic or homophobic, go ahead and do so. Use that language. But understand that your words, even sent into the nebulous void that is cyberspace, have real-world impacts on people. Impacts that can be life-changing, and not in a good way. Have the decency and the cajones to put your name on your opinions so the rest of us have an opportunity to call you out personally on things of this nature.
Having a dialogue means that you must actually be willing to listen to other people’s opinions and have your ideas critiqued. You get to critique other people’s ideas as well, but please, address their ideas, and not their personalities or personal features. Aggressive harassment, such as what The Daily’s columnist Lily Zheng, who is a brilliant writer, experienced as a result of her latest piece, shuts conversation down. If you attach your name to your ideas, you might end up saying something actually productive. Then we might actually be able to get some real dialogue going.
And to the people that are about to comment on this anonymously, thanks for proving my point. If you have a real issue with anything I said here, please just send me an email and we can talk about it. Because, in the interest of creating a more open and inclusive campus culture, of course, I’m all about that dialogue.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.