November 21, 2010

Secrets, Stickers and the Bridge Barriers

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I don’t even remember when we started collecting Postsecret secrets for Cornell Minds Matter. It’s been maybe a year now. They came in slow at first, but we got a good amount more once Frank Warren came to campus in October and spoke at  a sold out event in Bailey Hall.

Among the secrets we received, there was one that was of particular salience to the staff. A white card, with black and red letters, saying: “Ithaca is Fences. They save my life everyday.”

Making  the secret into a sticker to counteract the notorious “Ithaca Is Fences” stickers sounded like an excellent idea. Some people got really excited as sheets of the stickers were handed out; I recall giving my own sheet back to make sure the people who really wanted to put them on the bridges had a chance to do so. And, as expected, shortly after those were distributed, it seemed like more “Ithaca is Fences” stickers started popping up. Walking from the Engineering Quad to Collegetown, I noticed a little more of the yellow and white squares. It was amusing.

Last week, however, it stopped being fun.

One of the e-board members noticed how people had started writing things on the stickers: things like, “I live in an insane asylum,” and, “Then go around and jump, you idiot.” These were written right below “they save my life everyday.” I understand that the more aggressive messages were taken down almost immediately.

I thought the “Ithaca is Fences” thing was fine. I also thought it was good for the Postsecret secret to be made into a sticker, since it had been written by a student evidently concerned about the fences and their function. But the subsequent handwritten messages seem wrong on so many levels.

There is something about the anonymity of those little stickers. They’re like a CollegeACB post or something. Some are okay, while others rely on anonymity to express hateful opinions. The few times I’ve walked across the bridges in the past few days have been a little sad. The dueling stickers show a divide between the people that actually need those fences to be there compared to the ones that feel trapped by them.

I should be honest. I’ve felt both ways. Especially before the fences were changed, I felt trapped and quite imprisoned. Still today, if I’m feeling a little blue, I stop at the bridge and intertwine my fingers in the fence, angry at it being there, angry at feeling trapped. But then, whenever I feel really sad, I’m glad that the fences are there. They remind me that someone cares.

After the amount of information on the effectiveness of physical barriers came out — and witnessing the amount of articles and talks about it everywhere on campus — reading the handwritten messages on the bridge barriers made me angry. My first reaction was not about free speech. In my opinion, the stickers are a lot closer to hate speech. Intolerance toward potentially at-risk individuals makes me angry at how amazingly ignorant people can be. Despite the incredibly thorough communication by the University, students and community members of how physical barriers deter self-harm, I am surprised that this is still an issue.

Once I got past the anger, I remembered that I was not a fan of the Postsecret stickers in the first place. I don’t need a constant reminder of the amount of people that have these thoughts in their heads … because, frankly, it is disturbing. But if you take the time to listen to a couple stories, you quickly realize there are serious issues on this campus — personal issues far more serious than you had imagined. All of the stickers, what they achieve, is to make me remember why the fences are there in the first place, when I sometimes wish I didn’t have to remember. Sometimes denial is an answer. I don’t notice the black little lines of the fences anymore. I notice the stickers on them, which succeeds in reminding me that I should feel trapped, that I should remember what happened on those bridges eight months ago, and I have a life to live, goddamnit. And while I am also getting used to the stickers, I find that whatever they are trying to achieve is undesirable; if they insist on making me want to take the fences down, they are naive and sad: the fences are not going down, though they will be a lot nicer in the future. The silent, neon stickers are juvenile, and whenever they don’t make me sad, they piss me off.

As it turns out, the handwritten stickers, among others that have surfaced, are actually part of a student’s art project inviting a dialogue about the fences. I wonder if this student is actually going to any of the meetings about the fences themselves, or if she even considered the negative effects those messages could have on some people. In defense of the project itself, there are also fairly positive messages in these stickers, and all of them are quoted verbatim from Cornell students.

The dialogue has started, all right; I have seen people having conversations about the stickers for at least two weeks, especially on the bridges themselves. But conversation needs more than one person to happen; more often than not we walk across those bridges on our own. What then?

I agree that maybe the stickers are more impactful than other types of communication. But while I understand that they may serve a somewhat more relevant function because they are on the fences, I think that the “no posting” law that was made on the bridges last spring should hold. Take those little stickers down, and for God’s sake, find a better medium to discuss this issue. Are little stickers an acceptable medium to debate the worth of human lives? No, they are not.

Florencia Ulloa is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at fulloa@cornellsun.com. Innocent Bystander appears alternate Fridays this semester.

Original Author: Florencia Ulloa