Something harshly ironic happened at the end of November. The Eye’s lead story (“Let’s Talk About Last Spring: Obamanard and Liberal Arts Sexism,” Nov. 29) discussed in detail the sexist language that appeared on Bwog following the announcement that President Obama would speak at Barnard’s commencement. The article’s author, Margaret Boykin, claimed with some surprise that campus discussion about the Bwog comments and the misogynistic attitudes they represented had largely fallen quiet.
Just one day later, in response to Dean Kevin Shollenberger’s announcement that Q House would be awarded one of the vacated 114th Street brownstones, Bwog comment threads again became the site of hateful, malicious speech, this time primarily homophobic in nature (“Congrats, You’ve Won!” Nov. 30). For members of the student-composed Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board—just as, presumably, for many other students—the comment thread was a stinging reminder that, while the critical self-interrogation that Obamanard sparked may have fallen to the wayside for some members of our community, the prejudiced attitudes and ignorant bullying that the comments displayed remain alive and well.
These comment threads are only the most visible manifestations of a disturbing trend fast becoming—to our eyes, at least—entrenched on Columbia’s campus: using a mask of online anonymity in Columbia-specific websites to insult members of our community and degrade their identities. Other examples include the comments that greeted Matthew Renick’s resignation as chair of the Greek Judicial Committee, the Facebook account “Columbia Insults,” and an increasingly aggressive commenting culture on bored@butler.
The speech characterizing this culture of anonymous online aggression is disturbingly similar to the other kinds of violent speech that many of us have encountered in our lives, including the bullying that many students experience before or even during their time at Columbia. Two particularly pernicious facts about this online speech stand out. First, it frequently targets members of marginalized communities, attacking and degrading people for their various identities. Second, unlike words spoken aloud, online speech remains on the internet and can therefore trigger a reader many times over. This second problem is particularly pronounced in a small community like our own, where many students connect with each other via social media like Tumblr and Facebook; and being an online hermit is consequently more difficult.
Aggressive online speech often goes hand-in-hand with the commenters’ attitude that this speech is somehow harmless or that its only harm is its offence against politically correct culture. Those who insult or bully us, as well as the moderators of these anonymous online venues, often say that if we’re so offended, we just shouldn’t look—as if aggressive online speech were like a violent film that might offend your sensibilities but for which no one makes you buy a ticket. This attitude misunderstands the basic harm that hateful speech effects. Speech that trivializes sexual violence and downplays the importance of consent itself creates rape culture, depicting sexually violent acts as normal or somehow acceptable. Racist humor legitimates racist attitudes. Homophobic and transphobic remarks—for instance, “Anonymous’s” comment on the Bwog article about the brownstone assignments that “the gays” are “whiny,” “immoral,” and “have a psychological illness”—contribute to a culture that systematically oppresses to queer and trans* people. And so on. We need look no farther than the national statistics—for instance, that one in four college-aged women are the survivors of rape or attempted rape or that LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers or that a full quarter of young trans* people attempt suicide and half seriously consider it—to see the harm to which hateful, aggressive speech contributes.
As it stands, we cannot pretend that our own online speech has no similar effect on campus climate. Following the Nov. 30 Bwog comments, we heard many queer and trans* students and administrators discuss feeling hurt, attacked, and even unsafe. Prospective LGBTQ Columbia students have already contacted friends of ours, asking if campus climate is really as bad for queer and trans* people as the comments suggested.
As Columbia and Barnard students need to take responsibility for the communities and spaces that we create in person and online. In particular, we must realize that the way we speak to each other from behind the anonymous mask of a Bwog comment, bored@butler post, or any other anonymous online venue changes the community in which we live and study. How we respect or disrespect each other online changes how we view and treat each other face to face. We can and should hold ourselves to a higher standard of discourse.
Marita Inglehart is a Columbia College junior majoring in sociology, the president of the Columbia Queer Alliance and a ROOTEd facilitator. Gavin McGown is a Columbia College senior majoring in classics and philosophy and is the president of GendeRevolution. J.T. Ramseur is a Columbia College senior majoring in psychology, a member of Proud Colors, and co-chair of the Multicultural Recruitment Committee. They are all members on the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board.