May 1, 2017

LETTER TO THE EDITOR | Finding Common Ground: A Republican and a Democrat on The Sun’s comment section

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To the Editor:

Last week created a strange moment of unity — a pizza party among several deeply divided groups on campus as we observed Mitch McBride’s ’17 hearing. This was the first opportunity recently for any number of conversations that have not been happening: we have observed Cornell’s campus fracturing along sharper lines this past year. We’d like to address how this has been particularly visible in, and amplified by, trolling and hate speech in the Cornell Daily Sun’s comments section.

Although primarily driven by alt-right ideology, the ad hominem, vituperative and intellectually void rhetoric has not been limited to any one group within the Cornell Daily Sun commentariat. These comments are extreme enough to expose the contradiction within free speech: that speech of this sort can itself have a chilling effect on speech. While we don’t wish to recite a litany of insults, we offer the following examples to capture the scope of this problem. In an article about Dustin Liu winning the election for undergraduate student trustee, an anonymous commenter named “Hideki Tojo Lives!” sneered, “that feeling when you try to look like Imperial Japanese war criminal Hideki Tojo but you don’t have the Testosterone level to pull it off.”  In an article covering Ann Coulter’s inflammatory remarks, “Bob” antagonized conservative commentators with delightful sobriquets like “toilet bowl,” “drooling moron” and “unamerican Shitheel.” Most recently, in an article by Jason Jeong, commenters felt it necessary to accuse a student of being an Asian supremacist, called him “yellow,” and sniped that he contributes to the fact that America has become a cultural “dumping ground.” We fail to find value to these contributions.

National discourse may have sunk equally low, but we need not replicate our surroundings. We can, as the Cornell community, collectively demand a minimum level of sincerity in our interactions. We’re asking our peers to reopen avenues for dialogue and to primarily debate ideas rather than shred individuals. Condemn these racist, sexist, homophobic and other vile insults that we have come to expect.

We ask that The Cornell Daily Sun take certain measures to alleviate the problem. The first and most important request is that the Sun require individual commenters to publish under their authenticated names. We want honest conversations as well as accountability. Cornell students should be willing to own their words.

As a handful of trolls are willing to attach their real names to bile, our second request of The Sun’s staff is that they consider some method of moderating the online comments at their discretion, including on their Facebook posts. This could entail compromises like requiring that a reader click to view abusive comments. Should the staff at The Sun be unwilling to moderate online comments, we ask that they justify to their readers why they choose not to draw a line between earnest discourse and unnecessary and irrelevant ad hominem attacks.

We acknowledge that there are times when it is worth expressing anger, hurt, fear and other very intense personal reactions. We are not asking for politeness, dispassionate reason, mock-neutrality or false civility. We ask instead that the community take this moment to reflect on whether we are even managing open discussion at the moment, and whether we are missing alternatives as we drift towards normalizing this kind of invective in our responses.

Olivia Corn ’19
Anna Waymack, grad

  • I am delighted to read this letter from this bipartisan representation and I heartily agree with it. Thank you Anna and Olivia for speaking up!

  • Dustin Unfeld

    While I support the spirit of coming-togetherness & absolutely disagree w/ hate speech I don’t think it’s the newspaper’s role or obligation to police it. The call to commentators to police ourselves I think is very justified — but we don’t need censorship. I value the contributions of everyone I disagree with: trolls or not. And I’d say the comments aynon sections provide us an unusually accurate window into what folks are actually thinking but won’t say out loud. The robust discussion and debate (with some exceptions) has been excellent recently. Let’s keep it!

    • Tom Hobbler

      I don’t understand… they just asked the sun to remove the option for anonymous comments. How is that censorship? And you are saying that the robust discussion and debate has been excellent, even though this article is clearly about the racist comments that have nothing to do with the articles’ topics. How did you miss the point of this piece so munch?

  • Dustin Unfeld

    No. My point is that ending aynon comments will damage free and open debate. You seem not to have read the part of my post contemning hate speech. I’d consider reasonable methods to minimize comments deemed to meet the legal definition of hate speech, or something like that (eg. “Hate speech is speech which attacks a person or group on the basis of attributes such as gender, ethnic origin, religion, race, disability, or sexual orientation”). But employers read comments — as some of the bastards have menacingly reminded us in the comment threads recently. My argument is that ending aynon comments would encourage to be more circumspect or self-censoring of all sorts of deviant opinions — and many of these opinions would be productive for all of us having a healthy debate.

    Another thing I would recommend though is a ranking system where you can vote comments up or down — or maybe even flag them. The Guardian and NY Times have something similar

    • Anna Waymack

      Hi Dustin,

      These are great ideas, and there is obviously value in being able to include anonymous comments. (Especially in cases you don’t mention, where individuals fear retribution from not just future employers but people currently in positions of power over them.) I don’t want to speak for Olivia here without checking with her, but I’d be quite happy with reasonable efforts to minimize hate speech comments. I will be curious to see the Sun’s response.

      I’d point out that hiding but not removing comments is a compromise on censorship (a reasonable concern). Comments would thus remain available for viewing and for the record but then not poison the overall conversation.

      And I’ll disagree that policing ourselves is sufficient. I wish it were, but the recent bile suggests that’s a daydream if we want to actually tackle the problem and see results.

      Cheers,
      Anna

      • Olivia Corn

        I agree with Anna in the sense that these comments not only make the university look very bad to the public eye, but the hate speech comments add nothing of value except exposing that some people in society find it okay to publicly ridicule others.

    • Tom Hobbler

      I still just can’t comprehend how the kinds of comments that are found on these articles that this piece was written about are the kind you think encourage healthy debate.

  • Tom

    “Hate Speech” is in the eye of the beholder. Removing comments that allegedly offend someone is big brother censorship. If you don’t like the comments, don’t read them. And when someone from a group that is the highest earning group in the US and gets its students admitted to elite schools at a rate 5 to 10X its percentage of the population writes a whining piece about being oppressed, they deserve a lot of flack and ridicule.

  • David Duke

    If you get extremely angry and lose it because of some random stranger’s comment, you should stay in your safe space.

  • Max

    I agree with Dustin’s points. While I feel this article had good-intentions (esp in reference to its bipartisan approach), what you are proposing is censorship, which is fundamentally at odds to what our institution stands for. Granted, these comments are often times crude trolls spewing hatred (I commented in response to one of them on Dustin Liu’s article), but why hide these comments? As Dustin (who previously commented) said, the comment section does let people voice opinions they wouldn’t otherwise say outloud, meaning we are paying witness to bigotry that may not be as explicit in our day-to-day lives on campus. Hiding these comments would just be dishonest to ourselves- would create a bubble that does not really exist. We should be truthful and address inequities accordingly, as these comments serve as a reminder exactly why articles such as Dustin’s are so necessary. And though I would not go as far to say what the person above me commented in regards to safe spaces, it is true that one does take a considerable risk upon submitting an op-Ed on the daily sun- that’s how news/the public functions. Not to excuse the horrid comments – but we should mimic the real world and work to end these racist ideologies

  • Ken M

    Perhaps the Cornell DAILY sun should publish all comments as headlines in the DAILY print newspaper. That way everyone gets a fair chance to talk.