The Liberating Potential of Anonymity

There has been an exponential surge in painstakingly framed bellybutton photos in my text inbox. They are thick smoke in between my fingers. Fleeting, in their temporality they are so sweet—desperate to burn their fading images into my retinas I bore into them, navel-gazing as I never have before. 

And while I’m not upset, I am a little curious. 

The Snapchat app allows friends to message pictures, doodles and the like. They are utterly uncensored. And after a frantic few seconds they disappear forever (David Connor is my most flexible friend, but no evidence of this remains). 

This is Camus’ beauty defined, terribly painful in its certain passing but addictive, humanizing.

Snapchat is indeed largely silly, gross, an excuse to say/draw whatever you like with no accountability. But it lets points pass, does not cement speakers comments or viewpoints in stone to be forever recast and publicly attacked at the whims of others. Snapchat erases evidence, eliminates liability and liberates users. I think as a pursuit, anonymous dialogue, to a similar end, is genuinely important and really lacking at Pomona College. 

Anonymity is liberating. As we de-individuate within groups, we begin to lose our self-awareness, and with it our self-consciousness. For many, this invites mob mentality, inciting moronic but inevitable comparisons of peers to Hitler in every anonymous internet forum (see Godwin’s Law). Racial slurs belted from passing cars, rocks thrown from a crowd. These dangers are raw, real.

But what of an equivalent danger, a more nebulous—even accidental—group censorship? We are part of an incredibly small, ever interwoven community at Pomona College. Degrees of separation crumble at our gates—and those crumbs into dust at Foam.

There is a constant reminder in a small, connected community such as ours that we cannot escape our comments. Many of us are used to being the best and brightest of our classes, and we hold the collective misconception, even fear, that incorrect equates with ignorant. Any comment we make is inescapable, and we are taught to deconstruct each comment in search of offensive subtext. The common adage that we are being taught how to think evolves into the quiet reality that we are teaching others how not to think. 

In this elite liberal arts setting we use “feel” rather than “know,” “it seems” rather than “it is.” We preface our comments with “I just think,” then cover our tracks with defense mechanisms such as “like.” We have created a general stigma against taking strong positions, constantly defensive in our fear of being branded as offensive. A truly effective dialectic requires a strongly held thesis meeting its equally strongly held antithesis, pushing against each other to advance dialogue forward. Sanitized and disingenuous discourse cannot yield a synthesis of greater truth if we constantly retreat from our intellectual positions.

If we are paralyzed by fear of offensive subtext, and we are tethered to each comment we make, we have only two possible intellectual paths: the path of lethargic relativism, where with no position of authority for answers we accept maybes and questions; or the path of wavering perspective, where all perspectives are deemed biased and should be doubted save for the one you have chosen to cautiously support. This discourse is both unproductive and short-sighted. Liberal application of abstractions will not save the world.

Our community forces students to become standard-bearers of any strong opinion they hold, while an anonymous intellectual forum would let that responsibility remain a choice. I spoke with Professor John Seery, who informed me that the last Pomona College Dean search was discussed on an anonymous faculty forum. Professor Seery explained, “anonymity was a definite lubricant…information got promulgated that certainly would not have otherwise. Some assistant professors, for instance, may not feel themselves to be in a position to say what they really want to say.”

And yet he reminded me that irresponsible views did crop up, and I recognize that this is bound to happen in anonymous forums. But this is no argument against an anonymous internet forum at Pomona—if anything it is the opposite. My peers form my academic environment in constant, myriad little ways. I want to know if I am learning alongside a closeted nativist (offensive to Pomona students, I have predictably met none) as much as I now know which of my peers is pro-choice (a commonly accepted and oft voiced viewpoint). Dialogue only gets interesting when students have a personal stake in the conversation, frankly engaged with one another. We claim to encourage diversity in the hopes of diverse opinions in the classroom, and yet we refuse to hear certain views.  

Forcing offensive views into hiding is damaging to all parties involved; neither side develops stronger arguments, comes to a greater understanding of inaccessible viewpoints, or benefits from intellectual diversity. And if a view is truly foul, truly dangerous, forcing it into the dark is a fundamentally flawed solution; it grows in the shadows, and will only spread as long as it remains unaddressed and uncontested.

At its base, I think the magic of Foam is that everybody looks the same covered in spermicidal bubbles, and there is a rare 5C mutual understanding of irresponsibility. This humanizing orgiastic enterprise should be brought to an anonymous intellectual forum, where we discuss abortion and immigration, race and class with utter honesty—an intellectual utopia where there is no necessary consequence for comments and we may freely bare our soapy DFMO academic equivalents, our collective hidden selves, however dark they may be.

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