“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.” –Oscar Wilde
The hysterical reaction by some in our school to the “UCSB White Student Union” page on Facebook could keep me talking for months, but today I want to focus on one relevant subtopic: the right to anonymity.
You see, what seemed to make many people most angry about the “UCSB White Student Union” page was not its mere existence, but the fact that its moderators chose to operate with complete anonymity, and even refused a face-to-face meeting with administrators when one was offered.
The right to anonymity is an important aspect of free expression. Authors have written and published anonymously since the advent of the written word. Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay wrote the Federalist Papers under the pseudonym “Publius,” and many of the most notable authors of the past few centuries (including Mark Twain, Voltaire and Dr. Seuss) have done likewise.
In the 1995 case McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, the Supreme Court upheld the right to speak anonymously on political matters, saying, “Anonymity is a shield from the tyranny of the majority … It thus exemplifies the purpose behind the Bill of Rights, and of the First Amendment in particular: to protect unpopular individuals from retaliation — and their ideas from suppression — at the hand of an intolerant society.”
So why did so many people react so strongly to this basic right being exercised in an unpopular way by the “UCSB White Student Union”?
This is not the first time anonymity has come under attack at UCSB. In 2013, Associated Students passed a resolution condemning the Facebook pages “UCSB Confessions” and “UCSB Hook-Ups” and tried to get Facebook to take them down, saying they gave outsiders a negative impression of our school, promoted bigotry and even encouraged sexual assault.
This clear violation of students’ free speech was condemned by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and a group of students (led by the College Republicans) managed to talk A.S. out of trying to censor the anonymous Confessions page.
The phenomenon is not limited to our school, either. Recently I came across a Change.org petition to “Shut Down the app ‘Yik Yak’” by a young woman who claimed to have been bullied on the app. She complained that “With the shield of anonymity, users have zero accountability for their posts, and can openly spread rumors, call classmates hurtful names, send threats or even tell someone to kill themselves.”
Why do forums like Yik Yak and “UCSB Confessions“ come under attack so often, especially from liberals who support “social justice” causes? It is true, these modes of communication can be used to bully, harass and threaten, but I do not believe this is the real reason they have come under attack.
I believe that anonymity drives some on the left absolutely bonkers because they themselves represent the “hand of an intolerant society” that the Supreme Court warned us about. I believe that many people on the far left are less afraid of bullying over social media than they are of the potential that these media have to undermine their ideology.
The very cornerstone of political correctness and its influence on our society rests not in its reasoned intellectual arguments, but in its purveyors’ ability to publicly shame anyone who disagrees with them. Let’s take an example: in 2005, Larry Summers, then the President of Harvard University, gave a talk in which he suggested several possible explanations for the disparities between men and women in science and technology fields. Along with discrimination and women’s relative unwillingness to commit to jobs in S.T.E.M. fields, Summers discussed the hypothesis that disparities might exist because of the greater statistical variability in male intelligence.
Summers said that his remarks were an “attempt at provocation” and that he “would like nothing better than to be proved wrong.” But instead of responding to this challenge with intellectual rebuttals, the social justice left at Harvard set out on a campaign to attack and shame Summers for his remarks.
It is important to note that, in the ensuing fiasco, there was little debate as to whether or not Summers’s comments were true. The only real debate anyone was permitted to engage in was as to whether or not they were offensive. Eventually, after a long enough campaign of public shaming, Summers was forced to step down as President of Harvard.
When the social justice left cannot attack the idea, they attack the person. This is even encoded into leftist academia with such ridiculous postulations as feminist “standpoint theory,” which states knowledge is socially situated, therefore marginalized groups are able to know things that non-marginalized groups cannot. Essentially, this gives academic leftists a blank check on the one of the most elementary fallacies in existence: the ad hominem attack.
Anonymity destroys all this.
The social justice left is suspicious of platforms like Facebook and Yik Yak, not because these platforms can be used to spread hate, but because they can be used to challenge politically correct views. In fact, I would actually posit that some on the social justice left actually want these platforms to be used to spread hate, because this helps discredit such modes of communication.
In real life, very few people are going to come right out and say things like “I don’t agree with modern feminism” or “I don’t believe in white privilege.” Anybody who said this in a classroom would instantly be shouted down — not because their ideas are completely without merit, but because “Enlightened People” don’t think those kinds of thoughts. But on anonymous forums like Yik Yak, you will find (hidden among the typical deluge of social media stupidity) a great many people speaking their true, politically incorrect thoughts on these issues, sometimes with remarkable eloquence. Even the “UCSB White Student Union” page provoked some surprisingly thoughtful discussions about racial issues.
This is what drives the social justice left crazy. Because of the anonymity that the internet provides, they can no longer shut down rational discussion with the force of moral righteousness. When the opponent is a computer screen, you have no one left to shame. Your only remaining option is to engage the argument.
If you have no good arguments on your side, this must be a terrifying prospect.
For those who are offended by something they have seen on social media, I would recommend no longer frequenting these media, or doing so selectively and carefully. For those others who are more ready to engage in rational discussion, I encourage you to enjoy the freedom that social media can provide you.
A word of caution: anonymity can be powerful, but it has its limits. Some politically incorrect ideas may be acceptable to discuss under a pseudonym on the internet but are still completely untouchable in face-to-face settings, especially in the modern university. No matter how much free discussion may occur online, nothing will impact political correctness and moral bullying in the real world until a few courageous people are willing to stand up and face the social consequences of speaking their true, uncensored opinions.