Opinion | Op-eds

For a better discourse

Something harshly ironic happened at the end of November. The Eye’s lead story (“Let’s Talk About Last Spring: Obamanard and Liberal Arts Sexism,” Nov. 29) discussed in detail the sexist language that appeared on Bwog following the announcement that President Obama would speak at Barnard’s commencement. The article’s author, Margaret Boykin, claimed with some surprise that campus discussion about the Bwog comments and the misogynistic attitudes they represented had largely fallen quiet.

Just one day later, in response to Dean Kevin Shollenberger’s announcement that Q House would be awarded one of the vacated 114th Street brownstones, Bwog comment threads again became the site of hateful, malicious speech, this time primarily homophobic in nature (“Congrats, You’ve Won!” Nov. 30). For members of the student-composed Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board—just as, presumably, for many other students—the comment thread was a stinging reminder that, while the critical self-interrogation that Obamanard sparked may have fallen to the wayside for some members of our community, the prejudiced attitudes and ignorant bullying that the comments displayed remain alive and well.

These comment threads are only the most visible manifestations of a disturbing trend fast becoming—to our eyes, at least—entrenched on Columbia’s campus: using a mask of online anonymity in Columbia-specific websites to insult members of our community and degrade their identities. Other examples include the comments that greeted Matthew Renick’s resignation as chair of the Greek Judicial Committee, the Facebook account “Columbia Insults,” and an increasingly aggressive commenting culture on bored@butler.

The speech characterizing this culture of anonymous online aggression is disturbingly similar to the other kinds of violent speech that many of us have encountered in our lives, including the bullying that many students experience before or even during their time at Columbia. Two particularly pernicious facts about this online speech stand out. First, it frequently targets members of marginalized communities, attacking and degrading people for their various identities. Second, unlike words spoken aloud, online speech remains on the internet and can therefore trigger a reader many times over. This second problem is particularly pronounced in a small community like our own, where many students connect with each other via social media like Tumblr and Facebook; and being an online hermit is consequently more difficult.

Aggressive online speech often goes hand-in-hand with the commenters’ attitude that this speech is somehow harmless or that its only harm is its offence against politically correct culture. Those who insult or bully us, as well as the moderators of these anonymous online venues, often say that if we’re so offended, we just shouldn’t look—as if aggressive online speech were like a violent film that might offend your sensibilities but for which no one makes you buy a ticket. This attitude misunderstands the basic harm that hateful speech effects. Speech that trivializes sexual violence and downplays the importance of consent itself creates rape culture, depicting sexually violent acts as normal or somehow acceptable. Racist humor legitimates racist attitudes. Homophobic and transphobic remarks—for instance, “Anonymous’s” comment on the Bwog article about the brownstone assignments that “the gays” are “whiny,” “immoral,” and “have a psychological illness”—contribute to a culture that systematically oppresses to queer and trans* people. And so on. We need look no farther than the national statistics—for instance, that one in four college-aged women are the survivors of rape or attempted rape or that LGB youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers or that a full quarter of young trans* people attempt suicide and half seriously consider it—to see the harm to which hateful, aggressive speech contributes.

As it stands, we cannot pretend that our own online speech has no similar effect on campus climate. Following the Nov. 30 Bwog comments, we heard many queer and trans* students and administrators discuss feeling hurt, attacked, and even unsafe. Prospective LGBTQ Columbia students have already contacted friends of ours, asking if campus climate is really as bad for queer and trans* people as the comments suggested.

As Columbia and Barnard students need to take responsibility for the communities and spaces that we create in person and online. In particular, we must realize that the way we speak to each other from behind the anonymous mask of a Bwog comment, bored@butler post, or any other anonymous online venue changes the community in which we live and study. How we respect or disrespect each other online changes how we view and treat each other face to face. We can and should hold ourselves to a higher standard of discourse.

Marita Inglehart is a Columbia College junior majoring in sociology, the president of the Columbia Queer Alliance and a ROOTEd facilitator. Gavin McGown is a Columbia College senior majoring in classics and philosophy and is the president of GendeRevolution. J.T. Ramseur is a Columbia College senior majoring in psychology, a member of Proud Colors, and co-chair of the Multicultural Recruitment Committee. They are all members on the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board.

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Anonymous posted on

If you'd ever bothered to actually read the Columbia Insults, they're all jokes. They have to pass through the site creators to get posted and the results is just good natured ribbing. It was just a reaction to the identikit saccharine comments on Columbia Compliments. But then again, why actually do research when you've got a point you so desperately want to prove?

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Gavin McGown posted on

Thanks for your thoughts. All I can say is that I've been reading them for several days now and the comments show that some people are pretty upset. Good-natured in intent, perhaps. But it's not clear that they come across that way, and if someone's attacked because of, say, their body image or their gender identity/presentation or sexuality, it's not clear that the "good-natured" intent matters at all.

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Gavin McGown posted on

I should add, as well, that if people are insulting each other by saying that someone else "is secretly a transvestite guy," *I* don't care about whether it was good-natured or not. That person's use of being trans* as an insult attacks *me* and *my* identity—and I wasn't even the butt of the joke.

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Anonymous posted on

Hmm, I think you are missing the point of this piece. It's not about the intent rather the impact of these "jokes" that they want us to think about when we read or participate in these comments. I would suggest a second and more careful reading of what they are saying.

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Anonymous posted on

While I agree in your condemnation of aggressive and insulting comments, you failed to prove the point that online comments contribute to a larger culture of racism, sexism, and homophobia.
You offer absolutely no evidence that anonymous attacks online "changes how we view and treat each other face to face" - the closest thing to evidence in this article is statistics about rape and suicide.
This is irresponsible journalism - you are making unfounded claims and presenting them as fact, using statistics without establishing causation or correlation, and acting as if this is a legitimate argument. No matter how right you might be, you are immorally manipulating your readers through either cynicism or plain ignorance.
You should be ashamed of yourselves.

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Gavin McGown posted on

That's a rather dramatic way to put it, don't you think?

A couple of points:

1. The op-ed is just over 700 words. We can present a reasoned argument, but the space is too small and the topic too complex to establish a claim like the one we're making past all doubt. So if we haven't convinced you, I don't think that's a reason to be ashamed.

2. At this point, I'm just going to reference personal experience. I went through a lot of bullying in middle and high school because of my sexuality and gender identity, and that was one time in my life when I also experienced suicidal ideations, precisely because of the vile shit people were saying to me every single day. And I really don't think that my experience is all that unique. Compare:
http://www.thetrevorproject.or...

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Anonymous posted on

Well, I thought this was a very well said piece. I really wish more people thought about the words they used.

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Anonymous posted on

Hi Spec,

Can you give us a few examples of how B@B has been agressive lately. We would love to know how to improve.

Best,
Geordi La Forge

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Anonymous posted on

I think you are sort of wrong. First, bwog isn't very much like bored@bitler, in B@B, people don't post many sexist or racist comments, it gets moderated. Next people on B@B were speaking truth to power, voicing discontent about fraternities and sororities that people would be afraid to voice because they have so much power on campus. I really wish people would look more deeply at the differences between commenst on different websites and try to understand the different spirits in which people make comments, unfortunately at spec, there is this sad desire to stick the label of sexism on everything and paint it all with a broad brush, which is completely unfair, untrue and contributes nothing to the conversation.

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Anonymous posted on

The aggressive commenting section of bored@butler? What the hell are you on about? Are you so desperate to string together this article that online anonymity is always bad guy chaos and we should all carry our Columbia ID's everywhere and be monitored every time we pause to eat cheetoes or flick a speck of dust form the counter?

You do realize that those homophobic and sexist comments on bwog were the thoughts of the mindless Columbia constituency don't you? Mindless, overachieving, boot-licking poltroons (such as yourself and most of the writers on the Spec who write with zero passion) whose lives are dominated by competition and grubbing for favors. Of course people like that will stick to anonymous hatred and name-calling.

Say whatever you want about Bwog and the general Columbia student body (finance majors & fratstars & vapid overachievers; ok perhaps I jest too much now) but leave bored@butler out of this. Every issue on there is solved through discussion; the anonymous hate speech is practically nonexistent (unlike back in 2009); aggressive commenting is pure trolling which is almost like an art by now and everyone recognizes it as such; the place is in general a refuge for those who are lonely, feel outcast and trodden upon by institutional acceptance, by conformity (hi Spec), and by everything that makes the loner sad. I haven't even seen a legitimate anti-Barnard, anti-GS, or even racist post on b@b in the last year, amazing considering it's an anonymous forum. If anything we have solidified as a community, becoming welcoming and much of our satire points so many holes in the failed logic and skill present in your publication that I understand your reasons for wanting to vilify us.

I am thoroughly disgusted. I never bothered to read your publication before and linking myself to this was a mistake. I'm showing myself the door, much as you should be doing for your petty attempts at journalism.

Also I'm glad the liberal thought police are on top of their comment section kingdoms as usual in the comments below. Cheers.

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Anonymous posted on

Also disclaimer (since I'm getting reasoned with post heat of my passion): I understand that the author is not technically Spec affiliated, so the stepping down thing is just a rib. There were a lot of homophobic comments that I seriously disapproved of on that recent bwog brownstone article as well. I just felt riled to defend b@b since it seems like we've been in the cross-hair a lot recently.

Still feel like I wrote a 5 star post though! Cheers!

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Anonymous posted on

Hi, "thepoet." Since this isn't b@b, could you tell us your name? I would like to know more about you as a member of our community.

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The Dark Hand posted on

Hi Dan. I don't understand how that's relevant to what he's saying, especially since he's blatantly not trolling.

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The Dark Hand posted on

the liberal thought police circlejerk is strong in this comment section

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Anonymous posted on

b@b has not become "an increasingly aggressive" environment in any way, shape, or form. It's mostly sincere posts mixed with comedic joking with other users in non-malicious ways, and the occasional post on campus culture relating to articles from other sites where people discuss them, like they're doing now about this one and how the writers obviously didn't do their research on the site before writing this. If you take the time to glance over b@b now and then even run a Google search on how it was before taking a hiatus, you'll see that it became a way different environment with the addition of becoming "personalities" using avatars, having the ability to private message one another, have a profile, and, of course, a regular username which can be switched off anytime someone wants to post only anonymously without one. Do you see a significant amount of racist, homophobic, or sexist jokes on b@b? No, you do not. When it was just a sounding off forum in the very beginning years ago it was more likely to be like /b/, which you should know about if you've ever heard of 4chan. In other words, there was a lot more trolling and so-called hateful speech. b@b members are not going to police political correctness, but truly malicious and harmful posts are a rarity that is often dealt with. Chill out.

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Anonymous posted on

Please share your name. I really would like to know my fellow Columbians. You may have valid points, but it is difficult to engage in dialogue with faceless entities. Even if you vehemently disagree with the authors, I applaud their ability to put their name to their thoughts. Bravo.

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Anonymous posted on

Maybe the will, but sharing names is not really part of the B@B subculture, sorry dan. Our name is the avatar we chose,and it often describes us more than our real names.Please don;t hunt us down like Bwog. What they did was really wrong.

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Anonymous posted on

you are awful. can't just dismiss his points based on anonymity.

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Anya posted on

I totally disagree with all the other commenters. This article is completely right. I can also speak up and say that as a prospective female Columbia student at the point of the Barnard/Obama debacle, the language I was seeing on bwog at that time was so upsetting and hateful I almost didn't come here. I had no way of knowing that the vitriol that was being said about Barnard women and thus women in general wasn't the prevailing attitude in reality as it was online. Furthermore, as a queer student who hopes to live in Q House next year, I can thoroughly back up that the comments made me feel attacked and unsafe, for the first time. There is little scarier than discovering that a place that you thought was safe (and for me, the first safe place for my identity I have ever really had) may not be-- or at least is okay with acting like the absolute opposite online.

Gavin, JT, and Marita, this is a great and very brave article and I couldn't agree more with what you said. If people said civil things online-- in fact, if they only said online those things they actually believe instead of juvenile things they can't get away with in face to face interactions- we would have a much happier campus.

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The Dark Hand posted on

they are so brave for offering a liberal view point at a liberal institution, it brought tears to my eyes ;_;

It's like I'm really reading reddit.

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Anonymous posted on

Aw, wait, I thought B@B was a bastion of liberal tolerance where people can find refuge in a "safe space"? Now it's simultaneously against-the-grain edgy and liberally tolerant? Please, spare me.

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The Dark Hand posted on

b@b is a "safe space" because it's small. Everyone pretty much knows each other. So any form of "aggressive" posting, is usually meta-trolling that probably goes over the heads of non-initiated users. I'm not gonna pretend the discourse is of high value, or anything more than random shitposting for that matter. But to hold all online discourse to the same standard is patently ridiculous. There are ways we talk in a classroom or a public forum, and ways we interact with close friends. B@b has become much more the latter than the former.

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The Dark Hand posted on

As for Bwog comments. Yea they are pretty much shit. But b@b has nothing to do with that, unless you are legitimately offended by sp@csucks

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Anonymous posted on

B@B functions as both because it is a relatively small community which people have to actively seek out to become a part of - in contrast to bwog for instance - and also because members are versed enough in internet culture to understand the line between serious discussion and idiotic memeticized trolling - i.e. 'Die Cis Scum' 'Check your Privilege' etc. etc. And as TDH said, it's ridiculous to hold anon online forums to the same standards as classrooms or 'safe spaces' or whatever the hell. The best solution is for people to acknowledge that they're likely to be offended and ignore it and for Bwog, the site of half of these controversies, to up its game.

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Anonymous posted on

> Run an anonymous comment section > Expect people to be so kind and caring if their are no consequences for what they post. Have you been to 4chan lately? Articles like these are just feeding the trolls, and that means that they win.

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Anonymous posted on

Freedom of speech is the sine qua non of the authors' liberal values. Had Bwog/b@b/Facebook's predecessor publications been moderated to the ominous "higher standard of discourse," politically edgy speech wouldn't have seen the light of day on campus and would have taken longer to take hold. And had the world (or perhaps just NYC) been a more moderated space, coherent LGBTQ theory and the other daring philosophies that sparked it wouldn't have persisted.

We should not seek to be politically correct and silent when we can instead vocally engage the beliefs of others (and this may be what the authors intended to do here, but to the b@b community it sounds more like a call for censorship). There is least a case to be made that Q House's brownstone application was significantly weaker than the other non-Greek competition, and that it rose to the top for political reasons. There is a great deal more upset regarding hurt feelings at the divisive actions of administrators in creating arbitrary boundaries between Barnard, CC/SEAS and GS - a fight which was at least primarily over the unwarranted disparity in Class Day and long-term benefits students at our different schools receive.

For what it's worth, anti-Barnard and GS bias on b@b has dropped off over time because people have been made to discuss and subsequently reevaluate their beliefs out in the open. And 4chan, our much larger anonymous nephew, has found in their vulgarity the fearlessness to be the most liberal community around, spawning the political arm of Anonymous.

The fact that these contentious issues are addressed with hesitation (and that Boykin's somewhat sensationalist article still failed to find much evidence of hatred, of all things) ought to prove the already strong (and of course justified) reticence of anyone on campus to dare make LGBTQ affiliates or those in other marginalized communities uncomfortable, much less threatened. I would rather see these incidents permanently addressed than temporarily shushed under the laughable pretenses of homophobia or misogyny. Any comrade that doesn't understand that uninhibited discourse is the key to their personal and political growth is my enemy, just as much as CUCR.

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Anonymous posted on

Honestly you people are missing the point.
Regardless if B@B does perpetuate this type of discourse or not, discourse against marginalized groups is still a problem

You guys think this is bad journalism, but I dont think you actually understand how others feel when racist, homophobic, aggressive comments are thrown around on the internet. It's hard to simply ignore, and let's be honest it's not like majority of the people commenting here would simply ignore it themselves. The authors are obviously speaking from personal experience and are shedding a light on their reality. Instead of picking them apart for mentioning bored@butler maybe we should try to understand the overall message here, which is if we want to create a safe environment, we have to change the way we speak about one another. This includes comments you guys deem "should not be taken seriously."

I feel like no one here has actually been put in this type a situation and therefore belittles the effect. Please, stop and think about what you say. Words do hurt. Ask the number of teens who have been cyberbullied and contemplated taking their own lives.

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Anonymous posted on

Anon, I'm sorry but I disagree with you. When I read opinion sections of the Spectator, I will pick apart why people talk as they do. and it is frustrating that B@B, a place that actually does have a good discourse, a place where there is very little aggressive commenting is being singled out. It is the lack of research like this that allows anonymous commenting and social ills to thrive, because people have knee-jerk responses to a site and don't think. I'm not going to let him be excused because he has a "great message". Kony had a great message, but it still contributed to a lot of bad things. Look at B@B, a simple search finds that suicide is mentioned in over 125 posts, depression in 145 ,it's a safe space where people who have problems or are lonely can comment and be part of a community. We are small, we know each other and care about each other. We are not Bwog and we have moderators who remove sexist/homophobic discourse. While you were busy wailing about safe spaces, we actually create a safe space. Now, do you see why you can;t lump us in with everyone else? Furthermore, as a person who is also a minority, sure words hurt, but insults on the internet are different than those in real life. The computer can be shut down, bwog can be ignored. these insults will not go away, there always be members of our community that don't like gay peoples or those " spics" * awful word" or dem blacks. That's not going away. It is the responsibility of Bwog to edit those posts. they did not. But I certainly insist that the writer look into B@B subculture or remove that phrase from his writing because harming safe spaces that do exist makes Columbia an awful place to be.

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The Dark Hand posted on

The question becomes if this is the price we have to pay for totally free discourse, and whether the societal good of that type of totally free discourse outweighs the potential harm it causes. I direct you to @1cb1c39857f5eef49897f849251861a9:disqus 's post above for more. I understand the point that certain forms of speech legitimize and institutionalize marginalization of others, but this is more true with public forums rather than private ones.

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Anonymous posted on

:]

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Dweezy posted on

Well, when your school is dedicated to self-segregation, why would you expect different results? Look at how many groups are specifically made up of only one gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, etc.

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