I feel apprehensive writing this op-ed because I do not like imposing my views on morality on anyone or pretend that I know what is right. Yet the appearance of a new gossip site about the campus, in which anyone could anonymously post comments about a fellow student, really upset me. Not so much its existence, but the reaction of some Williams students on WSO. I read things along the lines of “everyone has the right to say whatever they want, even if it’s ugly,” “I don’t care” or “I’m bored, this is fun to read” or “let it be.” Even though the majority among those who attempted to defend the existence of the gossip site agreed that they did not believe in what was being posted online, they still chose to read it.
If you are reading or posting on that site, you understandably feel that I have no right to condemn your behavior. What you do or don’t do in your free time is not my business. Perhaps you’re right. But think about it – what are the consequences of posting online that a certain girl is a slut or that another guy is a player? What gives anyone the right to judge his or her peers in that way? Aren’t you assuming a degree of moral superiority in order to pronounce judgment on the behavior of others?
One thing that someone on WSO brought up, which is definitely very true and relevant, is that these kinds of judgments are not confined to the realm of the Internet. We hear them all the time around campus. Although not as anonymous as the gossip site, this indiscriminate judging is eerily similar to its online counterparts. I think it’s fair to say that the vast majority of the campus is angered by the explicit negativity of an anonymous gossip site, but I don’t see that same anger when everyday conversations resemble even worse versions of what is posted online. And I include myself among those who haven’t stopped a conversation going in that direction. Why do we keep silent?
We tend to forget others’ humanity when we barely know them. It’s just a name, perhaps a random face we’ve seen around campus. We can compare campus gossip to celebrity tabloids. Someone might think that it’s entertaining to read about the new fight between Brad and Angelina or Paris Hilton’s antics; why, then, is it so wrong for Williams students to have some fun reading an online campus tabloid? These two forms of gossip strike me as incredibly similar, except that Paris, Brad and Angelina are figures so far removed from the center of our own lives that we probably don’t think about how they might feel about the gossip published in the newspapers. But to say that we don’t care when we’re made aware of it … how is that possible? And then that we don’t care about how our peers might feel? We truly need to ask ourselves how we can value our entertainment over our peers’ feelings.
It’s true that we don’t all react the same way to having gossip spread about us. If you think that having people publicly comment on how annoying you are would not harm you at all, then I’m impressed with your strength of character. But try to empathize with someone else, perhaps someone like me. I can tell you that seeing those posts would hurt me. To be totally honest with you, they might make me cry, even if the gossip was outright false. Now what can be truer than someone’s personal feelings about something? There’s no room for an opinion here. “Oh, that wouldn’t hurt me” is not enough of an excuse. Sometimes we hurt people unintentionally, but we tend to know where the limits lie. This new site definitely crossed them. Do you respect those lines outside the Internet, where it perhaps matters the most?
Freedom of speech is such a highly valued right in the United States that I do not think it is challenged enough. Many condemnable groups with racist views are legally sheltered by it. I’m not promoting any kind of state censorship, but legal tolerance of such acts does not mean that we have to socially shelter clear abuses of this freedom. Of course, one can always raise the issue that the lines between abuse and legitimate exercise may be fuzzy. My rule of thumb is that if you know you hurt others with your gossip, spoken or written, you are abusing that freedom. We can’t physically attack another human being. Yet we are free to hurt them by insulting them and spreading lies without any consequences. I don’t know about you, but words sometimes hurt me more than blows.