Widgets Magazine


An open letter to anonymous opinions: Sit your ass down

There’s been a lot of student activism on and off campus this year and, as a result, a lot of talk at Stanford about “increasing dialogue” and creating an “open, inclusive campus culture.” We’re very worried about making sure the voices of our moderates don’t get silenced by the boisterous radicals. And really, it is important that everyone gets to speak in conversations about race, class, gender, identity and oppression on campus.

People have been expressing their opinions on a multiplicity of forums. There have been countless articles in The Stanford Review, The Stanford Political Journal, Stanford Magazine and The Stanford Daily on activism and related issues, like students’ conceptions of and opinions about race, class and gender as they exist and function in modern society. People also express their thoughts in other, less formally constructed forums, such as email threads, Facebook posts, Tweets and in-person conversations (what a concept!).

There exists, however, another group of “conversations” that are happening. I cannot call them conversations in earnestness, though, because this group contains people posting online and on various social media platforms anonymously. YikYak is a social media platform on which people can post thoughts without their name attached. There are also several other ways to publish thoughts anonymously, such as by commenting on a news article with a pseudonym or creating a Facebook page like Stanford Macroaggressions and not identifying yourself as a manager.

All of these different platforms for anonymous commenting have caused a whole host of problems. They have also been disappointingly illuminating with regard to the courage (or rather lack thereof) and the abhorrent ignorance of Stanford students.

I’m not personally on YikYak, but have been shown screenshots of extremely aggressive, even violent comments made toward women in particular sororities. There are people expressing misogynistic sentiments, some telling jokes and making comments that are overtly racist, while others stick to microagressions. In the days after the protest in which 68 students blocked the San Mateo Bridge, the scores of nasty thoughts had significant negative impacts on the already fragile mental states of many of the protestors.

Commenting from behind a curtain of anonymity can seem really attractive. You can say whatever you want without any consequences. That’s what it seems like, anyway. In reality, you can say whatever you want without any consequences that affect you. The Internet and social media are not your personal diary. Other people can read that. I have some news for you: you’re not funny. You’re not witty. You’re not speaking from a place of well-thought out, well-supported or even well-meaning ideas. Posting from a place of anonymity doesn’t make your thoughts valid or true. And if you’re not careful about what you’re writing, you can seriously hurt some people.

Clearly, you know that your comments are ignorant. Or at least that they are provocative. If you didn’t understand that, you wouldn’t post your opinion anonymously. There wouldn’t be any negative valence associated with attaching yourself to an opinion that is factually backed or one that isn’t controversial. It’s a start that you recognize that what you’re saying could be challenged, but this isn’t enough.

In an attempt to use this university experience to become a productive, highly functioning adult in society, you should welcome critique. You can’t improve as a human if you’re not challenged, and you can’t be challenged if you don’t give people the opportunity to do so. And you’re doing everyone else a disservice by automatically shutting down any potentially productive conversation they might have had with you.

I believe in freedom of speech as much as anyone. I’m not going to hit you over the head with the age old adage: “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all.” If you want to say things that aren’t nice go ahead and do it. If you want to be overtly racist or classist or misogynistic or homophobic, go ahead and do so. Use that language. But understand that your words, even sent into the nebulous void that is cyberspace, have real-world impacts on people. Impacts that can be life-changing, and not in a good way. Have the decency and the cajones to put your name on your opinions so the rest of us have an opportunity to call you out personally on things of this nature.

Having a dialogue means that you must actually be willing to listen to other people’s opinions and have your ideas critiqued. You get to critique other people’s ideas as well, but please, address their ideas, and not their personalities or personal features. Aggressive harassment, such as what The Daily’s columnist Lily Zheng, who is a brilliant writer, experienced as a result of her latest piece, shuts conversation down. If you attach your name to your ideas, you might end up saying something actually productive. Then we might actually be able to get some real dialogue going.

And to the people that are about to comment on this anonymously, thanks for proving my point. If you have a real issue with anything I said here, please just send me an email and we can talk about it. Because, in the interest of creating a more open and inclusive campus culture, of course, I’m all about that dialogue.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

  • skullbreathe

    No comments.. Is that a ‘micro-aggression’ on the importance of your editorial? LOL..

  • junior

    “The Internet and social media are not your personal diary. Other people can read that.”

    Perhaps you should think about this before being surprised that people comment on things you publish on the Internet

  • anonymous

    I think anonymous comments are hugely important. Many people at Stanford rely on ad hominem attacks to push their agenda and demonize anyone who doesn’t perfectly agree with their worldview.

    Anonymity allows words to stand apart from a person. It’s certainly abused, but at least you aren’t able to hide from it.

  • Anon

    Of course anonymous comments have their benefits. Consequences cannot be brought against you for an opinion. This is true not only for the shameful opinions voiced anonymously, but also for “good” opinions. Even in the latter cases, one cannot control how others will view the opinion or react. Thus, reasons that might push someone to post anonymously might be fear of peers, fear of employer repercussions, fear of reactions of strangers on the internet (to only name a few).

    I personally value my anonymity. Certain things are easier said behind the label “Anon”. If I am having a conversation with friends, a misspoken individual sentence may not stick with me for the rest of my life. On online forums, instead, without anonymity, it may. Thus, with anonymity, I feel more inclined to participate in dialogue (and I appreciate this).

  • No Comment

    “Posting from a place of anonymity doesn’t make your thoughts valid or true.”

    Nor does it make them invalid or false. Nor does posting something with your name attached to it make your thoughts valid or true.

  • Candid One

    What is “anonymous”? What is “anonymity”? Walk around campus…there are thousands of anonymous creatures at LSJU. Undergrads are outnumbered by grad students on campus. Undergrads are outnumbered by staff on campus. What constitutes anonymity…and isn’t it the rule, not the exception?

    What intrinsic critical value does an opinion acquire merely by having a recognized source? If an opinion has virtue unto itself, how does knowledge of source modify that opinion’s validity? Isn’t the implication more in reverse…that an opinion’s perceived virtue transferred to its source? What kind of critical analysis is conducted when source value transfers opinion value? As a generality, which process is most viable?

    Are we discussing the art of opinion, or the science of knowledge?

  • Anonymous and Proud Of It

    Was Francios-Marie Arouet (better known as Voltaire) a coward for lacking “the decency and the cajones” to put his real name on Candide, ou l’Optimisme?

    Was The Cold Within (text here: http://www.ongalex.com/archive/coldwithin.html) “not speaking from a place of well-thought out, well-supported or even well-meaning” because it was published anonymously?

    Shah’s shortsighted denunciation of anonymous speech disparages these and other great works published anonymously or under a pen-name.

    Anonymous speech does not “do everyone else a disservice by automatically shutting down
    any potentially productive conversation they might have had with you.” There’s plenty of opportunity to respond and converse anonymously. Shah can respond to this post if she so desires. Rather, anonymity does just the opposite. It permits people to reply with their true thoughts without fear of ostracism, lost opportunities, and other negative reactions.

    Ultimately, I seriously doubt that Shah wrote this article because of any well thought out deficiencies of anonymous discussion. Let me ask you this: had the anonymous voices on YikYak and whatnot shared sentiments that were in line with Shah’s world views would she have written this article? I think it’s safe to say no. Thus, Shah wrote this article not out of displeasure of anonymous speech, but out of displeasure of the thoughts being voiced anonymously. She wrote this article out of displeasure that not everyone shares her views on activism, that not everyone agreed with Zheng’s stance on special accommodation for trans students, and that not everyone agrees with her view of what is right and what is wrong. It is this displease of dissenting voices that prompts Shah to denounce anonymous speech, not the desire of create discussion.

  • AscendingIntellect

    Your earnestness is misled by an ignorance of basic definitions. Conversation: “the informal exchange of ideas by spoken words.” In other words, in your world, superheroes behind masks who are talking to each other are not actually having conversations. Neither does explicit identification of the speaker have any bearing on comedic content, wit, veracity, benevolence, coherence, or justification, as you imagine. Neither is it a speaker’s responsibility to nurture the perceptions of all who hear their speech. You are responsible for feeling “hurt” by words of others. You can make the decision easily, in your own mind, while processing any cognitive dissonance you may encounter. A person is rarely aware of their own ignorance. Are you? How is a person aware of what they don’t know?

    You do realize as well, that critique and productive conversations are as easily offered to Superman as Clark Kent? Did you even take the time to stop and think about your own ideas? To castigate nom de plumes, is to insult men like Mark Twain. It shows a lack of understanding of America itself. We value our privacy. We value our free speech. We will not let it be chilled and intimidated by people like you who preach sociological censorship, collectivist shaming, and wideband Delphi tactics for consensus. You’re in the wrong country, woman. SCOTUS agrees in McIntyre v Ohio Elections Commission.

    pseudonymous speech…anonymity
    is a shield from the tyranny of the majority. it thus exemplifies the purpose
    behind the bill of rights, and of the first amendment in particular: to protect
    unpopular individuals from retaliation– and their ideas from suppression– at
    the hand of an intolerant society.
    …responsibly used.
    the right to remain anonymous may be abused when it shields fraudulent conduct. but
    political speech by its nature will sometimes have unpalatable consequences,
    and, in general, our society accords greater weight to the value of free speech
    than to the dangers of its misuse.
    mcintyre v. ohio elections commission 514 u.s. 334 (1995) justice stevens
    writing for the majority though often maligned (typically by those frustrated by an inability to engage in ad hominem attacks) anonymous speech has a long and storied history in the united states. used by the likes of mark twain (aka samuel langhorne clemens) to
    criticize common ignorance, and perhaps most famously by alexander hamilton,
    james madison and john jay (aka publius) to write the federalist papers, we
    think ourselves in good company in using one or another nom de plume. particularly in light of an emerging trend against vocalizing public dissent in the united states, we believe in the critical importance of anonymity and its role in dissident speech. like the economist
    magazine, we also believe that keeping authorship anonymous moves the focus of
    discussion to the content of speech and away from the speaker- as it should be.
    we believe not only that you should be comfortable with anonymous speech in
    such an environment, but that you should be suspicious of any speech that

  • Chill yo

    You’re speaking as if the speech Shah is calling out is some sort of well-written, intellectual discourse on the merits of activism. This is just simply not what’s happening on YikYak. Do you really mean to compare Voltaire’s thought-out, developed essays exposing new and progressive ways of thinking to the mindless and vile harassment on YikYak? I think you owe Voltaire an apology.

    We owe each other some human decency even when speaking in an anonymous forum. Shah is just reminding us that. Shah isn’t making some giant case against anonymous discourse. She’s just calling out anonymous harassment, and damn, people say some truly mean things on YikYak. It’s not speech we should be defending here. If you’re trying to say that online harassment is a valid form of voicing dissent, then I think you should reevaluate your priorities. Otherwise, I think you need to re-read the piece and think about what Shah actually said.

  • mogden

    If it is the ideas that matter, then what difference does it make if an opinion is anonymous?

  • anon

    When there isn’t a person attached to an idea, it’s too difficult to attack their argument based on their race, gender or sexuality!

  • Anonymous and Proud Of It

    Shah most certainly did denounce all anonymous speech. The very title of this speech demands that anonymous voices to “sit your ass down”.

    “Shah isn’t making some giant case against anonymous discourse. She’s just calling out anonymous harassment”

    Shah makes no such distinction between anonymous speech and in general and anonymous harassment. She denounces all anonymous speech, and makes that blanket statement that anonymous speech is “not speaking from a place of well-thought out, well-supported or even well-meaning ideas.”. The notion that Shah approves of anonymous speech in general and denounces only hateful speech is of your own invention, and it is not not expressed in this article.

    When you want to create discussion, you don’t tell people to “sit your ass down”.

  • mogden

    Spoken like a true cishetmale. You can’t hide from me.

  • aannoonn

    I’m staying anonymous on this just because I’m embarrassed by how long this got, and I feel vaguely loser-y for caring so much. If you really want me to put my name to this, reply saying so.

    There are CLEARLY problems with how people are using yikyak to be hostile and disgusting without having to face repercussions. However I disagree with your broad denunciation of anonymity as a tool. Anonymity is very useful and valuable for several things, of which the most important here are:

    A) It forces readers to judge what is being said on the basis of the ideas alone, and not the speaker. (Which you sort of said in your article.) I think this is tremendously important when campus dialogue is currently saturated with a willingness to bring in the speaker’s race, gender, sexuality, class background, etc, when judging the validity of their opinions. I make no value judgment on that, but I do strongly believe that anonymous forums, as misused as they have been, can be a really good alternative space for dialogue that complements the campus norm. I am disappointed that this article’s thesis is “anonymity is bad, stop being anonymous” instead of “let’s start using anonymity in productive, civil, and valuable ways”. Yeah, it’s likely not going to happen, but that should never stop us from trying.

    B) It is often difficult to openly dissent with your chosen community (especially when that community defines itself partly by not being that other community we disagree with) without being accused of being That Other Community We Don’t Like. This gets harder the more divisive the issues are. And many of the issues the Stanford community has been grappling with are really complex and very emotionally charged. And it is so, so easy for a matter with your name attached to blow up so that everyone knows about it, to the point where their hostility and disagreement affect your life. You say that “There wouldn’t be any negative valence associated with attaching yourself to an opinion that is factually backed or one that isn’t controversial”, but surely you realize that this is not true. The latter more than the former; being controversial is not and should not be a measure of a statement’s value, or lack thereof! Think about everything in history that’s been controversial that we now agree was a pretty good idea. But that’s kind of a broad argument for why controversy isn’t necessarily bad. The more relevant argument is that a statement’s controverialness (that’s not a word, sorry) is extremely dependent on what community it’s made in, and less dependent on whether the statement is wrong. A controversial statement made in the Bible Belt may not be controversial in Stanford. A controversial statement in Japan may not be in Finland. Vice versa, et cetera. If we’re really a community that values diversity, we should welcome the right kinds of controversy.

    We both agree that the really vile, offensive stuff on yik yak is vile and offensive. And that polite, thoughtful pleas for civility (which I’ve also seen on yik yak – since you’re not on it, you probably haven’t seen them because those don’t tend to be the posts that are screencapped and circulated) are polite and thoughtful. But I disagree with your blanket condemnation of anonymous forums, which is based on viewing the most inflammatory statements.

    Consider also: yik yak has a voting system where anything more than five downvotes disappears. I really like this system: disgusting, shitty things that people say tend to disappear quickly, although a persistent spammer can tire even the most vigilant of thumbs. But if they stay around because there are enough people agreeing with it, even if we think they’re wrong, we need to pay attention to them. Anonymous forums aren’t just where people go to say rude things for the sake of rude things. They’re where opinions people feel like they can’t say get vented. (The more pressure not to say it, the more venting.) And if it’s still afloat, that means enough people are agreeing with it that it’s worth paying attention to. As you said, we “must actually be willing to listen to other people’s opinions”. We cannot stick our heads in the sand and pretend those opinions aren’t there just because they’re wrong. (I hope no one says “we’re only talking about the extreme cases, where it’s literally just all slurs!” because then I can say “well I’m also talking about the really good cases, where it’s people being really polite and reasonable!” and, by sticking to the most defensible parts of our arguments, we never actually get to debate the part we disagree on.)

    And finally, because of what it is, yik yak is a read at your risk environment – for their own health, I’d advise people who are emotionally fragile not to go there. I think it’s terrible that people are saying what they are. But I think anonymous forums like yik yak are worth keeping for their overall positive value. It’s also generally self-contained, meaning if there’s a shitty thing said there, the only way the shitty thing gets coverage is if someone – usually someone who disagrees – deliberately shares it on another social platform (which I see so little value in doing – why spread muck around?). And if yik yak is widely used for vitriol, the onus falls on those who’d be harmed by it to take the (not very difficult) precaution of not going on it, while people who still find things of value in it can go and do what they want. That’s what I did when I couldn’t handle it for whatever reason. And then I went back when I knew I could. I think that’s a workable system.

  • Jennifer Hill

    OK I’m not gonna even attempt to reply to everything you’ve got written but I just HAVE to point out one thing…

    You wrote: “A person is rarely aware of their own ignorance. Are you? How is a person aware of what they don’t know?”

    Are you for serious? Of COURSE we can (and should) recognize the things we are ignorant about. I absolutely know I am ignorant about econometrics, the contents of the Torah, how computer chips work, and the experiences of living as a black person in America. Or what it’s like to hear slurs about your sexuality. I just absolutely don’t know much about those things.
    If I look around 360 degrees, I see more things I know nothing about than things I know a lot about. If you aren’t aware of your ignorance you lack either humility or imagination. Or maybe there’s something else wrong with you. I couldn’t possibly know.

  • byre

    “If you’re trying to say that online harassment is a valid form of voicing dissent, then I think you should reevaluate your priorities.”

    This such a tiresome, predictable strawman argument I can’t even.

  • Jonathan Poto

    Cue Reggie Miller saying “OH. NO. SHE. DIDN’T.”

  • Jonathan Poto

    One thing Mina forgot to mention that might be important is that 99.99% of anonymous

  • Jonathan Poto

    One thing that might be important is that 99.99% of anonymous commenters ain’t fucking Voltaire. These comments usually aren’t worthy of a penname as much as they are not worthy of reading.

  • Jonathan Poto

    Last I checked Stanford wasn’t Germany, 1942 — requiring anonymity to say anything of substance.

  • marie

    I’m so glad you wrote this article. I hope my son reads this article; I can reverberate the message. He came to Stanford to get knowledge and skills to become an mechanical engineer; however, he is being consumed with social issues going on throughout the country. I followed his comments on Facebook, when I wanted him to think about his thinking and actions he threatened me by unfriending me. My point was for him to critically think and follow through his potential actions. He does not want to entertain any views that are contrary to his beliefs. As mentioned, certainly that kind of thinking stifle constructive expression and positive solutions to social problems. It is one thing to explore an eye opening experience s in college but another thing to actually tackle issues with positive and constructive results. Simply put words go so far; actions that uplift people is the real solutions.

  • AscendingIntellect

    As it stands, neither Mark Twain, nor Batman knew that they were ignorant, or were solely driven by a desire for provocation. That’s the point you missed. Maybe you are not serious, or else, you need to take the time to keep context straight in your mind, before judging. As it stands, because of your lack of context, you have presented a complete straw man in taking my comment for what it was not. The context of my response was addressing a particular kind of ignorance. The author stated: “Clearly, you know that your comments are ignorant. Or at least that they are provocative.” That is not the kind of ignorance you are referring to i.e. acknowledged boundaries of a person’s knowledgebase.

    The kind of ignorance that the author referred to is what a person is wrong about, but thinks that they know. We call that a rhetorical tautology. A very insidious, corrosive injection into any bit of rhetoric. She was so disingenuous that she even followed up that ridiculous statement with “or at least that they are provocative.” In other words, “you know you’re wrong, or at least you’re a bad actor, interested in provoking.” Similar to your indignant, disrespectful attitude when you say, “are you serious?” Shall I play like you two? Here: “You know you’re wrong Jennifer. Or at least you know you’re only interested in ridicule. Any serious person would take the time to understand context, and not misinterpret a dialogue so profoundly.” How is that? Shall we all be like you two and act like the Nostradamus of other people’s cognition and intention? What an ugly, force-based sociological norm.

    As per your extension: not knowing about a body of knowledge is different from not experiencing the exact same thing as another human being. You are a unique individual with your own set of struggles you’ve sustained. You don’t need to be gay to experience derision and ridicule, nor do you need to be black to experience prejudice and bigotry. Those experiences are readily offered from an ideological, value-oriented, religious, cultural, socioeconomic, or institutional basis as well. So instead of dividing yourself, why not go ahead and relate. It’s what brings us together. There are some sheltered people in all cliques who have faced less ridicule and bigotry. There are burdened people who have faced more. It would be rare for any human being to face none. In no case can you generalize down a categorical line without systemic evidence. Rather, giving license to particular categories of people to be sacred, and making it blasphemy to relate, or even critique or judge their claims, is the impetus for chilling a truth-oriented, generalized discussion for favor of a sociological agenda filled with double-standards and hypocrisies, and devoid of universal humanity.