On March 12, Ryan Schiller ’22 woke up from a nap around 11 p.m. to a random ping on his phone from the app, Clubhouse. The social network, which relies on audio-chatting in themed chatrooms similar to large conference calls, notified him of a conversation with Yale-affiliated moderators entitled “Abolish the Ivy League.”
Schiller joined the chatroom, where he was invited to introduce himself to the crowd of listeners as a Yale student. In his introduction, Schiller says he briefly spoke about his co-created app, Librex — a mobile app created in September 2019 that allows Ivy League students to anonymously discuss campus culture. About five minutes after his introduction, Schiller says a few other current Yale students came to the chatroom to talk about the app’s limitations, in what would develop into a more than 2-hour debate in front of more than 800 listeners. At the helm of this conversation were questions regarding the first amendment, censorship and if college students can establish meaningful relationships with peers across the political spectrum.
All eight students who spoke with the News mentioned discussion as an effective tool for fostering relationships across political lines. But four students were wary about political polarization on campus and five students identified concerns over debates related to identity or civil rights.
Is the Personal, Political?
For Jasper Boers ’22, at the heart of polarization on campus is when the personal becomes too political. This can oftentimes lead to broken friendships, anger and lost time at the University, he said. There are people who view politics as part of their identity, but ultimately debate will not always end in compromise, Boers added.
“I don’t think we should be aiming for a political University,” he told the News. “While it’s great that some of these students want to engage in politics, I think four years at Yale are quite short.”
Jordi Bertrán Ramírez ’24, a member of the Endowment Justice Coalition, told the News that more conversations need to be had with patience and empathy when discussing any political divides. He added that “fundamental shifts in value[s]” don’t happen overnight, and it is best to assume benevolence. But Bertrán Ramírez said the ability to separate the personal from the political is a privilege for some, and that “oftentimes marginalized communities turn to protest” because they feel there is “no other way to communicate with people in power.”
“When we’re talking about issues that are about civil rights and creating spaces that are accessible, focusing on debate as being the only and primary source of value … debate isn’t perfect,” Bertrán Ramírez told the News. “If I don’t know how to argue with you that I deserve my rights, that doesn’t mean I deserve my rights any less.”
Emma Knight ’22, co-Leader of the Yale Political Union, said that it was okay not to always engage in cross-partisan discussion, especially when the debate might involve civil rights.
“Not everyone wants to (or even can) seek out intense cross-partisan discussion all the time, and I honestly think that’s okay,” Knight wrote to the News in an email. “Political debate can be exhausting, especially when issues involve one’s own rights or identity. I know that I am privileged in many ways, which has contributed to my positive experience with fruitful discussion on campus, and I want to acknowledge the fact that not everyone has had the same experience.”
Knight highlighted the parliamentary procedure debate format in the YPU, a debate society she felt has a wide range of ideological backgrounds. Though the format — which includes student speakers giving three-to-five minute speeches on carefully chosen topics — may seem odd to first-timers, Knight said the unique format helped to “emphasize a high standard of conduct.” She said that the YPU also seeks to foster relationships outside of a debate setting, so that members can “learn to appreciate each other” beyond their political beliefs.
Politics in the classroom and on campus
Boers — the student president of the William F. Buckley Program — thought more engagement was needed in University classrooms.
The Buckley Program seeks to expand political discourse on campus by hosting events, such as debates between two scholars from opposite sides of a given issue. The success of the program — high attendance at events and lots of programming — shows there is a real appetite for education and participation on issues that are polarized to a certain extent, Boers said. But he emphasized that the organization is not meant to replace discourse that should take place in classes or the broader University.
“The real intellectual diversity is, and sort of has always been, in the classroom,” Boers told the News. “The real thing that students, I think, if they want intellectual diversity ought to be pushing for is a greater representation in Yale classes.”
On campus, Boers said that in challenging classes, he found there to be much more of an emphasis on the collective mission of the students to engage with difficult texts. Political disagreements start to dissolve as everyone is working towards understanding the readings.
James Hatch ’23 — who is an Eli Whitney student and veteran — expressed similar sentiments about his first year around a seminar table, discussing challenging books with students who came from different backgrounds.
“My philosophy professor from first semester, he said ‘Good leaders are bridge builders,’” Hatch told the News in an interview. “That’s what I see in my classmates … I think that academia could be and it should be the place where the example on how to conduct yourself when discussing different, sensitive and difficult issues — Yale College should be that.”
“I think generally in terms of classes with Yale professors, they’re pretty open to most ideas,” Ryan Gapski ’24, outreach director for the Buckley Program, told the News. “I think most students are pretty reasonable too.”
Jaelen King ’22, the Executive Director of the Black Students for Disarmament at Yale, echoed similar sentiments. The organization is still working to meet with campus groups who have traditionally opposed police abolition, which is BSDY’s main goal.
King said that lived experiences, family history and traditions all contribute to the way people think. There is no inherent hatred, King said, and even if he may not agree with one of his peers, the best course of action is to talk it out and understand where the other person is coming from.
“I’m just a firm believer in the relationships and the power of love and the power of people connecting, more than the idea of an idea being objectively right, or a universal truth,” King told the News. “But more just like caring about the person enough to work towards coming to a compromise, agreement or forgiveness pattern.”
King said it’s easy to fall into a “social niche and stay there” at Yale, and that it was up to students to be intentional about stepping out of these spaces to better empathize with others.
Censorship and Social Media
Schiller has described his app, Librex, as one answer to the lack of complex conversations being held amongst Yale students. During the Clubhouse call, he introduced his purpose for creating Librex: to create conversation within campus communities. He added that he wanted people to talk about important issues and connect with one another “in an authentic and vulnerable way.”
“Those couple minutes that I was listening turned into two hours, maybe even more, of me just fully involved in this conversation,” Fatma Elsayed ’23 told the News in an interview about the Clubhouse chatroom. “[I was] explaining to them the context around Librex and having this wider discussion on free speech, which I think is definitely one of the most debated topics about college campuses. But I think sometimes when we talk about free speech, we don’t consider what that conversation means for people of color.”
Elsayed joined the call to highlight “previous harmful posts” on the app, which Schiller told the News were from last July and have since been taken down. During the call, Elsayed also opposed the idea that Librex was “a solution, or way for us to have invigorating debates that were meaningful” at Yale due to the app’s anonymity.
“College campuses don’t need Librex,” she told the News. “College campuses need classrooms, discussions and debates where people are actually talking face to face.”
But Schiller defended the app’s anonymity feature, in part because he remembered times when his friends felt the need to self-censor in classes or were excluded from social circles. “We all need social communication and want to fit in,” he added, which led some of his friends to realize “it may not be worth it” to openly express their political views. At the crux of the Clubhouse conversation, Schiller said, was a tension between “censorship” and trusting college communities to be “positive” through debate and conversation on the app.
Librex has gone through a number of changes since its first inception. From the beginning, users could only access the app with authenticated credentials such as university email addresses, and Schiller said the app has always had the ability to ban users. Over time, the app has expanded security measures by increasing the number of student moderators on each Ivy League server. Schiller, who doubles as a Yale moderator for the app, said the student moderators are provided with access to a moderation interface and are push notified each time a post is reported. He added that, as an app with community standards, if “enough people” report a post, it is automatically removed. As one of the app’s creators, Schiller said he is in constant communication with student moderators across schools and that Librex surveys its users once per quarter.
Schiller mentioned a previous experience where the app had to re-examine its policies — the May 2020 student elections at Dartmouth.
On the Dartmouth server, only accessible by the Dartmouth community, there were reports of public attacks or condemning of student candidates on the anonymous app. Librex’s previous policy stated that private information, names or the “divulging [of] details about people’s personal lives” was prohibited for non-public figures — such as students. But initially, where candidates for student office fell in the two categories was unclear.
Schiller said that since then, the Librex team voted to remove the posts and updated the rules regarding non-public figures in the context of campus elections. He reflected that there were some posts that “went too far.” For him, addressing those posts was a learning experience to help him and others figure out the bounds between “what’s civil” and “what’s divisive.”
Schiller acknowledged that there have also been posts on the Yale feed that have “gone too far” and mentioned the security measures currently in place and the road of development ahead.
“There’s always so much work to be done, and there’s so much we want to make and so much we want to improve about the app and school community in general,” Schiller said.
According to Hanah Jun ’23, if someone makes a hateful comment, accountability could mean the ability of other students to a) respond to the comment and/or b) disaffiliate with the person who made the comment. Currently, students can comment underneath posts but all posts are anonymous.
Still, Jun, who also tuned in to the Clubhouse call, said that maintaining ethics on Librex —and all forms of social media — is easier said than done.
Jun recounted her comments made in the chatroom, whose audience she characterized as having a diverse familiarity with the app.
“I was commenting that accountability would be harder to enforce on an app like Librex where posts are anonymous,” Jun told the News in an interview. “Free speech should be allowed, but there should be some mechanism of accountability.”
She added that if hateful speech leads to hateful actions, there should be consequences to a degree. But she emphasized that accountability looks different for each case.
“There’s a fine line,” Elsayed said. “But I also think there are some cases were it’s very clear.”
Knight said that yes, there is a fine line between a “controversial take” and an “offensive take” but said people always disagreed on where that line landed.
The Bigger Picture
In general, Jun said, users lose the “humanistic aspects” of discourse when it is shifted to an online platform. She added that it has some real psychological effects, like people being less respectful of each other and debates spiraling out of control.
Knight wrote that this semester leadership has been working on “systematizing” the process for “responding to harmful comments” made on the YPU debate floor. “Given our polarized climate, people sometimes don’t know about certain dog-whistles or historical contexts,” her email read. She added that “almost always, harmful speech is unintentional.” Four other students agreed.
But Knight noted that regardless of intent, “harm needs to be taken seriously” to preserve and advance the inclusivity of YPU spaces. Though it is difficult and different depending on each case, doing so means “initiating restorative and educational conversations following incidents” in order to “find understanding about the roots of the disagreement,” she wrote.
For Bertrán Ramírez, the origins of contention is where conversations must begin if students are to cultivate long-lasting relationships.
“When I sit and I think, what is the root, the fundamental seed of what I care about, what that is is people deserve to be treated with respect and care, and people deserve equitable treatment,” Bertrán Ramírez said. “But that is already a contested belief, and so the very seed of my activism, the very seed of my advocacy, to some people is already contentious. That’s where the problem starts, and that’s where I think the conversations need to begin.”
Zaporah Price | firstname.lastname@example.org