On a Friday morning in September, Aryssa Damron ’18 was asked by Campus Reform, an online news source focusing on colleges and universities, to participate in a Fox News story about political activist DeRay McKesson. By 3 p.m. that afternoon, Fox had booked her a car to their studios in New York. Damron filmed live at 7 a.m. the following morning, less than 24 hours after she had gotten the initial call.
During the interview, which was aired on national television, Damron criticized the Yale Divinity School’s decision to bring McKesson to guest lecture a two-day course on leadership, stating that she believed him to be unqualified to teach at Yale. McKesson is a civil rights activist who has been involved with protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. He has been credited with marshaling protestors and gathering momentum around the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter using Twitter and other social media.
During the interview, both Damron and Tucker Carlson, a Fox news pundit, used inflammatory language to criticize McKesson, alleging that he inflamed racial tensions. During his interview with Damron, Carlson said McKesson was “not an impressive guy, just kind of a race hustler,” and added that he makes “totally unfounded, stupid claims.”
Damron herself stated that she didn’t believe McKesson fit the criteria for a Yale professor. “The other teachers teaching the other courses at the divinity school are senators and reverends, or Yale alumni, and yet we have this random Twitter star teaching a course because Beyoncé follows him on Twitter maybe,” Damron said in the Fox interview.
She ended the segment by criticizing Yale as a whole, saying that the political climate of the institution was hostile to conservatives like her.
“I hate seeing that Yale is creating leaders who divide instead of leaders who unite,” she said.
Several hours after the Fox piece was aired, Melina Delgado ’19 posted a video of the interview on the Facebook group Overheard at Yale. The post immediately garnered widespread attention on campus and provoked intense anger and hostility from people within the group. Many of the comments expressed outrage toward Damron and the ideas that she had voiced, but some took the form of personal attacks.
Some commentators called Damron “a disgrace to Yale” and a “bloody ingrate,” asking her to “stay away from campus.” Others questioned her qualifications for speaking on the subject and stated that she “proved terrible stereotypes” of Southern women. Several students posted that Damron had stretched the truth when she claimed during the interview that she paid $60,000 a year for her education. In reality, Damron is a QuestBridge scholar and receives a full-ride scholarship for low-income, high-achieving students.
Damron received the first notification about the post the Sunday night after the interview aired.
“When I checked it, I was in the middle of a game of pool so I wasn’t paying much attention,” she said.
As the posts intensified in frequency and online reaction grew more heated, Damron said that she received hundreds of Facebook messages from people who wanted to express their sympathies.
“I thought I was lucky that the worst backlash I was getting was from some people online that I had never actually met in real life and probably never would,” she said.
Damron also received support from members of Yale. Sebastian Medina-Tayac ’16, a former staff reporter for the News, defended Damron in an op-ed in DOWN Magazine, alleging that she had been manipulated by Carlson and Fox News in order to inflame partisan and racial differences.
“Being a low-income and conservative woman at Yale does truly put her in a marginalized position on Yale’s campus,” Medina-Tayac wrote. “Her zeal to speak on national news was just a nail in the coffin. Instead of using Damron’s parents’ income to reveal her hypocrisy or further bludgeon this low-hanging fruit, we have to recognize the ways in which corporate media manipulated all of us.”
Damron told WKND that although she had expected some controversy, she had not anticipated the potency of the backlash from her fellow students. She said that she hadn’t expected that there would be any Yale students watching Fox News at 7 a.m. on a Saturday morning, or particularly caring about the issue.
“I do wish [my critics] had felt brave enough to confront me in person about my beliefs, if they thought they were so egregious,” she said. “Not a single person ever told me to my face that they did not like what I said, disagreed with me, etc. They simply posted online and thought that that was enough. I had zero trouble going back to campus and walking around proudly.”
Since its founding in 2013, Overheard at Yale has mutated into the central online campus forum. The group has amassed a total of 5,500 members and become one of the main places where students and alumni report and discuss events happening at the University.
Javier Cienfuegos ’15, a prolific commentator on the group noted for his vocal defense of liberal viewpoints, said that he realized he had begun to build a reputation around campus purely based around his online presence.
“People who I had never met before would recognize me,” he said. “I would show up to parties and people would say, ‘Oh, you’re that Javier.’”
Tyler Blackmon ’16, the creator and administrator of Overheard at Yale and a staff columnist for the News, told WKND that he had not expected the growth of the group.
“I really just wanted us to have a space to share things we overheard,” he said. “The group has evolved in lots of ways I didn’t expect. Even simple things like starting to add pictures wasn’t something I originally intended, but I’m not necessarily opposed to evolution. In some ways, this is the student body’s group. They have molded it into something new, and I’m [okay] with that.”
On occasion, online posts have triggered widespread demonstration, as in November, when Gian-Paul Bergeron ’17 used the forum to report an offensive joke that speaker Greg Lukianoff had made during a private William F. Buckley, Jr. Program conference on free speech. Bergeron claimed that Lukianoff had quipped: “Looking at the reaction to [Silliman College Associate Master] Erika Christakis’ email, you would have thought someone wiped out an entire Indian village.” The online Facebook post precipitated an impromptu protest outside of Linsly-Chittenden Hall, where the Buckley event was taking place, as a group of over 100 Native American students, other students of color and their supporters began to gather around Linsly-Chittenden Hall to voice their anger.
However, discourse on Overheard at Yale and on other online forums has also become heatedly personal, as it did after the posting of Damron’s interview, possibly due to the nature of online, rather than face-to-face interaction.
Wabantu Hlophe ’18 stated that his experiences as a student involved with the South African #RhodesMustFall and #FeesMustFall movements led him to the opinion that internet activism was antithetical to calm discourse.
“I found the internet to be a series of echo chambers where people hear the arguments they want to hear over and over again,” he told WKND. “The information they receive is by and large determined by the people they happen to be friends with, and their social media becomes a reflection of the culture they grew up in. As a result, they tend to use non-rational argument methods, attack the person instead of the argument and create golden staircases. It becomes difficult to reach any kind of progress.”
Hlophe said that he believes online ideological discourse results in a higher frequency of flippant ad hominem attacks. As a result, he now explicitly chooses not to engage in any type of online activism for political movements, Yale-specific or otherwise.
“In person, when you have a discussion, you’re dealing with a real person, you’re more likely to be constructive with your criticism,” he said. “I want points to be grounded, rational and reasonable — presented in a manner that doesn’t denigrate who I am as a person. I would rather debates in the online world be like debates we have in a room.”
As the administrator of the group, Blackmon is responsible for deleting and censoring otherwise inflammatory posts. Blackmon told the News that he doesn’t seek to moderate content, but to moderate the way by which content is presented. In addition, Blackmon does not allow extracurricular groups to advertise on Overheard at Yale and tries to avoid including lost-and-found postings and news articles. Blackmon said he has been criticized by conservatives and liberals alike for an ideological bent to his methods of content regulation.
“The ironic part … is that my critics don’t even agree on what my ideological bias is,” he told the News.
Blackmon intends to hand over the group at the end of the year to new administrators who will in turn be tasked with moderating group content.
Confrontational online discourse isn’t limited to the confines of Overheard at Yale. Aaron Sibarium ’18, an opinion editor for the News, published an op-ed entitled: “Reject hook-up culture.” In the article, Sibarium argued against the logic of hook-up culture — “the way we treat sex,” he wrote, in a subsequent Facebook post.
The op-ed generated a strong negative response from the student body. On Facebook, Sibarium’s article was reposted by multiple students, often accompanied by critical rebuttals.
The reaction was exacerbated by the then-recent release of the Association of American Universities report on campus sexual assault, which showed a staggering incidence of sexual misconduct on campus. Helen Price ’18 was one of the most vocal critics of Sibarium’s piece, and her critique, which took the form of a Facebook comment on a repost of the article, received over 50 “likes.” She wrote in an email to the News that she believed that Sibarium’s article had encouraged victim-blaming.
“The column essentially argued for more moral policing around sex and hooking up as a solution to [the AAU report],” Price wrote. “This is both ridiculous and dangerous, as such policing of sexual activity inevitably leads to women being shamed more than men.”
Sibarium said that he feels that online criticism was directed more at him as a person rather than the arguments that he had made.
“What upset me was not that there was pushback, but that most of the pushback was directed at a flagrant misreading of my column, and that so much of the criticism was ad hominem,” Sibarium told WKND. “If people disagree about my empirical claims, that’s totally fine. But anyone who thinks I advocated slut-shaming or victim-blaming should read what I actually wrote — I did no such thing. I was walking on eggshells for several weeks. I kept thinking, ‘Wow, people must really hate me now.’”
Sibarium added that although he has reconsidered the wording of some parts of the piece, his overall position has not changed.
His experience was mirrored by that of Cassandra Darrow ’18, who was similarly criticized when she published an op-ed in the News entitled: “White people need ethnic studies,” a rebuttal to staff columnist Cole Aronson’s ’18 controversial op-ed “What Yalies Should Know,” which argued against an ethnic studies requirement on the basis that ethnicity is not inherently a part of the human experience.
In her article, Darrow claimed that arguments such as Aronson’s perpetuate ignorance of power and white supremacy. Her article was met with criticism and ad hominem attacks, especially from online commentators, who dismissed her as a “social justice warrior” and harshly contested her claims, often in racially offensive terms.
“Much of this anger is really just the frustrating knowledge that some ethnic groups are actually intellectually superior,” read one of the comments posted on the News website.
Darrow said that she had expected to be censured when she published the article. She told WKND that a friend had warned her to be emotionally and mentally prepared for vitriolic commentary.
“These types of articles tend to get the most online flack, especially with a platform that only affords 800 words; there’s no way that potential gap in understanding could be bridged. But online commenters don’t intend to bridge understanding,” she said.
In an email to WKND, Dean of Student Engagement Burgwell Howard said that the administration has little control over Overheard at Yale, even though Yale’s name is included in its title.
Howard acknowledged that the issue of discussion in online forums is a very tricky one for most colleges and universities.
“As you are aware, Yale vigorously defends the rights of students and members of our community to speak freely, and we do not limit speech on campus,” Howard wrote. “The exceptions arise when speech becomes threatening or harassing, and that threshold is when the Undergraduate Regulations might apply.”
Howard wrote that the University does not have an explicit cyberbullying policy. However, the Undergraduate Regulations address issues of threat, intimidation or coercion, stalking or harassment and/or use of the Yale name. So, if a student could be identified as engaging in online behavior that may be in violation of any of these regulations, it could be an issue for the Executive Committee.
Howard also wrote that it is difficult to define what in particular constitutes cyberbullying and acknowledged that it can occasionally be difficult to differentiate between heated online discourse and online harassment.
“Every case that is reviewed formally by a dean or through the Executive Committee is unique, so there is no clear answer available up front,” he wrote in the email.
Howard defined harassing behavior as repeated, unwanted behavior — especially after one party has expressed that the communication or behavior is unwanted. So, if such a scenario emerged in an online forum, or somewhere physically on campus, and could be tied back to a Yale student, a case could be made for administrative involvement.
Last April, Jason Henington DIV ’16 posted on Overheard at Yale that his wife had just been robbed at gunpoint, offering a description of her assailant as a black male wearing a black hoodie, a black scarf with white “F”s on it and black pants. Henington urged the Overheard community to call the Yale Police if anybody had any information.
Shortly following the post, Neema Githere ’18 commented that Henington should have included a more specific description of the suspect.
“There are many black males with black clothing on and around this campus. It would be unfortunate if there were people unjustly pursued based on this very vague (not to mention problematic) description,” she wrote.
A terse exchange with Henington followed, during which Githere cited the instance last January when African-American student Tahj Blow ’16 was forced to the ground at gunpoint by a Yale police officer.
Following the exchange, Githere posted on her own Facebook page a compilation of 16 comments that she had seen on Yik Yak, a social media app that allows users to post anonymously. Many of the comments mentioned her by name and derided her for her role in the Overheard thread.
Some of the comments were racially offensive: “Black people wonder why everyone hates them, it’s because you can’t shut up. Angry, fat, loud black woman is a stereotype that DOES live up to its name,” read one.
Githere wrote that her intention was to point out that racism and violence were widespread at Yale despite the “pretty buildings.” She could not be reached for further comment.
Computer science professor Daniel Abadi told the News that Yik Yak has provided a platform that promotes “animalistic inclinations without the social pressures of personal accountability.”
In his email to WKND, Howard wrote that “We would hope … that students would respect each other enough to engage with each other responsibly — whether in person or online. Yale fully supports a student’s right to engage in challenging speech, even speech that may be disliked, personal or even hurtful, but we would hope that the values of the community, and what it means to be connected with each other, would intercede before it could be considered a violation of our Regulations.”
Ad hominem is universally acknowledged to stymie rational discourse, increase animosity among both involved parties and generally hamper communication. But strikingly, all of the students mentioned above have become, if anything, more entrenched in their original views after enduring significant criticism.
Damron is probably the most notable example. She wrote to WKND that she feels as if her statement about Yale’s hostility towards conservatives has been validated by the criticism she faced after conducting the Fox interview.
“Honestly, I was a bit pleased when people began to attack me online … their negative comments only served to prove my point further,” she said.
Her reaction to the personal attacks she suffered mirrors the claims that Medina-Tayac made in his article on Damron’s interview.
“If there’s one way to radicalize someone even further, it’s to exclude them from any world in which they can relate to the other side,” he wrote.