The constitution lists 10 innate rights all American (men) have — the first of which is the freedom to speak one’s mind. As children, we all used the First Amendment to our advantage, taunting others on the playground: “It’s a free country!” Today, with the advent of the World Wide Web, the written (and spoken) word reaches more people instantly, and allows those writing and speaking to carelessly — and often anonymously — hurt others. I’d argue that if James Madison were alive today and able to witness some of what is said (over the Internet or otherwise), he would, at the least, add an amendment promoting the value of filtering one’s thoughts.
We were given a privilege in 1789, but the anonymity and accessibility of the Internet has distorted this sacred liberty. When we do not own our words, the freedom to use them means nothing.
Last week as I was struggling to complete a statistics problem set on time, I scrolled through the course’s Blackboard page, looking for any hints I could possibly find that might help me get the job done. I stumbled upon the “Discussion Board.” The professor had written, “This forum is for any general requests for the instructor or T.A.s. Feel free to post anonymously if it helps you be more honest.” I opened the folder hoping to figure out what ANOVA really was, and instead found anonymous comments tearing the poor guy apart. Aggressive attacks to turn back assignments earlier, write easier tests and to do this because “the whole class believes” so (apparently I wasn’t there the day we all took a survey?). The anonymity that the professor had probably hoped would give students space to be vulnerable — that is, to admit they didn’t understand a concept or confess that they needed help on the homework — had turned into students addressing the professor in ways they never would if they had had to sign their names.
I started thinking about other ways our freedom of speech becomes distorted when we can speak namelessly, and I immediately remembered the worst of the worst of collegiate culture — College ACB. If those of you reading (Mom and Dad) haven’t visited the website, don’t do it. It will only make you feel terrible about the school you attend (or send your children to, as it were), as the website allows the most deplorable of Cornell’s community to publish their thoughts anonymously — and the whole world can read them. I hadn’t been on the website since early freshman year when one of my hall mates had been highlighted in the forum “Freshmen Girls I’d @#$%” (tasteful, no?), so I decided to check it out.
It appears they’re revamping the site to encourage more “positive anonymous conversations” but the idea holds. Anyone can start a conversation ranging in topic from “Top Tier Frats” to “Fattest Girls on Campus” to “Let’s Talk About Thoreau,” without posting their name. Now, if the website were created to discuss literary nuances, and anonymity allowed us all to unleash our inner nerds without feeling embarrassed, I’d be on board. But the conversations about classes or politics are few and far between. The scathing remarks that are posted anonymously about other students are nauseating, and my guess is those writing would find other avenues to boost their own egos if they had to own their words.
Social psychologists believe antisocial behavior is exacerbated when our markers of personal identity (e.g. our names) are obscured. Normal people can act in uncharacteristically antinormative ways when they are detached from their identities. This process, called deindividuation, explains why the KKK wreaked havoc while they hid under their white cloaks, and why cyber bullies are able to beleaguer peers without remorse — so long as they’re behind unidentifiable screen names.
Bad behavior that results from deinviduation is not only harmful to those involved, but also demonstrative of an innate coward. When a student posts a biting comment on the Blackboard Discussion Board just because she can, the underlying request — the ounce of good intention — is lost because she couldn’t allow herself to be vulnerable enough to sign her name. Anonymity, as my professor wrote on the Discussion Board, allows truth to emerge, but it also lends itself to unfiltered and unproductive banter. And I think that’s the point. If you want to say something, it is, as our Founding Fathers decided, your right as an individual. However, if you say (or write it) it, you need to own it. If you cannot muster the courage to attach yourself to whatever you are sharing, consider re-phrasing, re-writing or even re-thinking. James Madison granted us all a privilege — it is our responsibility not to abuse it.
Hannah Deixler is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Shades of Grey appears alternate Thursdays this semester.