“I thought she was Latina when I met her. I mean, I thought something wasn’t clean in the milk.” –Anonymous submission to Overheard At Amherst
We all have opinions on the Amherst Facebook group Big Four. Amherst Compliments is fun and cute, Amherst Crushes is fun and a little creepy, Overheard At Amherst is in turns funny and unfunny… and then there’s Amherst Confidant.
Amherst Confidant, the breeding ground for discontent, “discourse,” and discourse on the “discourse.” It’s what you get when you put highly flammable, controversial topics on an anonymous online platform: a not-so-fun funhouse version of what we like to regard as intellectual, socially relevant, liberal-arts-campus conversations. What started as a place for secrets (a great premise, especially considering how well ACGG worked out), quickly turned into a clusterfuck of posts including such endearing phrases as “Kiss my ass, you stuck up, obviously insecure asshole.”
The site brings up many questions. What should the role of the moderator be? Should they be censoring posts that promote hate and prejudice in our community, or does it come down to a matter of freedom of speech? How does the anonymity of the site affect the level of discourse – does it allow for openness that would otherwise be unavailable to members of our community or does it allow students to shirk responsibility for their problematic statements?
Anyone who’s seen my comment on the quote that opens this article (the impossibly eloquent “shut it down shut the whole page down”) probably already has an idea of my opinion of these pages. Yes, Compliments and Crushes are cute and generally harmless. Overheard is, for the most part, funny or benignly unfunny (for the sake of my own sanity, I’m choosing to ignore the recent sexist, fat-shaming “She’s fat and I’m sober.”) But Amherst Confidant is a can of worms that shows the dark, ugly underbelly of campus discourse.
It’s not a matter of freedom of speech: it’s a choice to promote or shut down hateful speech. It’s irresponsible to play God by “giving a voice” to everyone, regardless of your own beliefs, because allowing people an anonymous platform to promote unclaimed, private beliefs cannot result in anything positive. If you are unwilling to take responsibility for the things you say, you should ask yourself why you’re saying them at all. And if you truly believe them, but are merely afraid of blowback and stigmatization when expressing your desire to use the n-word in good fun, maybe you should ask yourself if you’re submitting to Amherst Confidant out of cowardice. Spoiler alert: you probably are.
If someone in our community wants to use Facebook to engender a level of discourse that they aren’t seeing on campus, they should post a status. Everyone should feel free to complain about the banality of social justice, but everyone should also take responsibility for the kind of dialogue they share with the community. The expression of varying and controversial opinions is great – it allows us to learn and grow as individuals and as a community. But the anonymous platform of Amherst Confidant (and, to some degree, the other pages as well) promotes irresponsible, often cowardly conversation, and that’s not helping anyone grow or learn. It’s helping people air their frustrations and gang together, it’s helping people pick sides and it’s helping divisions, prejudices, and resentments fester in our community.
“But what if I don’t submit anything to Amherst Confidant, anyway?” you may be thinking. “What if I just think it’s funny to see people arguing in an ultimately pointless and unproductive way?” The other side of this is a kind of perverse voyeurism that comes to light as people derive amusement from watching their peers express passionate feelings about social issues in a way that may be inappropriate or hurtful. This scopophilic behavior can be incendiary and can also undermine the importance of promoting actual campus discourse.
And, on the flip side of this are students who dislike seeing people bash their college, a place that we all chose to make our home. It can be hurtful to see your “peers” spew so much negativity towards an institution that you love (even if you sometimes hate it yourself). Amherst has provided a home, a community, and many opportunities to its student body, and most students feel appreciation for the school, and say negative things about it from a place of love and a desire to make Amherst all it can be. That love doesn’t show itself on Amherst Confidant, a place where people go if they’re frustrated and angry and just want to rant.
It looks like Amherst Confidant is gearing up to start posting again this school year. I’d recommend unfriending so as to cut the negativity out of your life, but, as I mentioned, who doesn’t like watching a good trainwreck? I’ll probably keep reading the posts… but I’ll also probably keep repeating the ancient proverb of “social justice warriors”:
“shut it down shut the whole page down”