Anonymity’s temptation in online discussions

An op-ed columnist attaches his or her name to a piece and accepts the consequences of sharing a political opinion or social commentary in a particularly public forum. It is a risk. Along with others, I have been called names and given dirty looks because of what I’ve written. I scrutinize my words and ideas before publishing them because I know the consequences of careless, incendiary editorializing.

Such is unfortunately not the case in all public forums. The Yale Daily News’ new online edition allows readers to post anonymous comments on articles. This feature is not unique to this paper’s Web site; most major publications offer a similar Web forum.

I can see how providing a place for readers to share their thoughts might seem like a good idea on paper. But in practice, such anonymous forums are consequence-free havens for extremists to make rash, careless and dangerous statements that are the antithesis of responsible journalism and reasonable discussion.

Here’s an example of where such Web forums can lead. Eight days ago, my fellow News columnist Aisha Gayle wrote about David Horowitz’ now-infamous ad “Ten reasons why Horowitz is misguided.” On the News’ Web site, most articles receive zero comments; Gayle’s currently has several dozen, most of which are quite disturbing.

This particular online chat begins with an argument over the usefulness of affirmative action. Gayle, in her column, asserts that affirmative action remains necessary to promote racial equality. One contributor claims that many blacks not qualified to attend Yale are admitted anyway because of unfair racial preferences.

Another responds, arguing that minorities at Yale are perfectly qualified and that affirmative action is necessary to correct past injustices. Still basic stuff — the whole affirmative action debate has been around for some time, and it’s not going away for the foreseeable future.

But under the shroud of online anonymity, this affirmative action debate grows more heated. Why do blacks demand racial preferences? “The lack of distinguishment of the black race in all parts of the world in terms of technological and scientific advancement is a further sign to support my argument,” said the self-styled “Stuff” (posters can choose their own names), adding his view that “black people are inferior intellectually to whites and Asians.”

A writer who calls himself “Why are you debating” further stokes the fire: “The white race has had something going for them for millennia, you numb nut. The black race came up with one advanced civilization, the white race has come up with a 1,000.”

I don’t like reading insensitive, inaccurate and racially charged comments, particularly on a Yale-oriented Web site. And to make matters worse, it appears that name-calling and superiority complexes are equal-opportunity employers, not just limited to whites.

Someone named “Another response,” who appears to be black, responds: “Ohh a millennia aye? You mean the millennia when we were building pyramids and kingdoms, and you were busy thinking that the world was flat and living in caves? Oh and by the way my friend, African civilizations have been kicking ass for centuries and will continue to do so far into the future.”

So what do we have here? A debate over affirmative action — on a Web site associated with a university that has given this country its last three presidents — degenerating into a pathetic argument over whether the black or white race is superior. Whites cite the chaos of modern Africa; blacks bring up the barbarity of medieval Europe.

I would like to make an alternate suggestion. Rather than trying to prove the inherent superiority of one racial group over another, we could accept everyone’s equality and look for common ground. I accept that the Internet will inevitably play host to some racial supremacy debates between the odd extremists, but it doesn’t have to happen on the News’ Web site.

Note that I have avoided using the word “racist” until now. This is because I’m not convinced that the posters, black or white, are necessarily full-blown racists. They said some racist things, but I suspect these are more the consequence of mistrust and a lack of face-to-face communication than of genuine racial hate.

The Web, with its faceless and nameless forums, allows people to say things they would never say in person and probably don’t fully believe. When someone implies that his or her race is better than yours, of course you feel the need to respond forcefully, and the whole situation escalates into a nasty, immature mess. This mess caused people to make racist statements that will perpetuate the mistrust that is a primary source of racial tension today.

We can debate affirmative action and slavery reparations in a civil manner if we learn to discuss race openly and frankly. Tiptoeing around the issue makes anonymous Web chats the only outlet for people’s feelings on the topic, an outlet that lends itself to extremism and insensitivity.

Let’s learn a lesson from the Horowitz affair and its aftermath on college campuses by basing racial dialogue on the common ground and equality of personal contact and signing our names to what we say — not the mistrust and incitement of a chat room.



John Schochet is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns appear on alternate Wednesdays.

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