At The Daily Pennsylvanian’s Opinion Section we have a cardinal rule: Don’t feed the trolls! This is because — as is true in all online forums — divisive opinions tend to generate callous responses and replying to volatile comments usually just fuels the flame. Unfortunately, the end result is that my fellow columnists and I very rarely brave the comments section, and the important conversations that we had intended to start are either left unrequited or consumed by hateful messages.
This is, however, an issue that is by no means limited to the DP. The problem of dealing with insensitive provocateurs is one that universities are increasingly being forced to deal with and yet, are poorly suited to solve.
Just recently, our own campus was visited by the real life embodiment of the hateful rhetoric we see online. Once again, homophobic preachers, intending to antagonize students, found their way onto Locust Walk. The only difference was that this time they were met by a team of noisy maintenance vehicles and leaf blowers.
This incident, and the resulting debate surrounding it, has illuminated a glaring deficiency in our campus’ ability to handle inflammatory speakers. The problem is that we tend to focus on whether or not someone is being censored but put little thought into how to actually improve our conversations.
Currently, Penn has guidelines in place to ensure that our freedom of open expression is not infringed. Adhering to this standard is important — it keeps our demonstrations leaf blower free. But while these guidelines may show us how not to treat homophobic preachers, they give us little guidance as to how we should best be deal with them. There is of course no easy answer, but it’s a conversation the administration should be initiating.
What becomes apparent to anyone who has interacted with the preachers is that although they may share our rights, they do not share our values. Penn’s proclaimed dedication to the free exchange of ideas presupposes that those ideas will actually be exchanged rather than simply used to incite outrage. This assumption is, unfortunately, more true in principle than in practice. The homophobic preachers who continue to invade our campus have about as much of an intention to debate ideas as that of the leaf blowers.
These preachers by no means adhere to our campus norms of dialogue and debate and yet their inflammatory style is indicative of what is increasingly becoming standard for the world outside the classroom. Trolling is no longer being relegated to the depths of reddit forums and comment boards. It has now become a mainstream political style.
Some trolls, like Breitbart writer and professional provocateur, Milo Yiannopoulos, have even become popular campus speakers. Yiannopoulos, much like the homophobic preachers who keep coming to Penn, feeds off of controversy. His rhetoric is more often intended to offend rather than persuade and his volatility has garnered him a strong following in the alt-right movement.
The unique challenge that a speaker like Yiannopoulos poses to universities was well summarized in a statement released by University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce.
“He is not someone I would ever invite to speak here,” wrote Cauce, “not because I don’t value a robust or difficult discussion about a range of policies or social issues — such conversations are necessary and college campuses are ideal places to have them — but because this is clearly not the kind of conversation he is seeking. He generates heat, not light, and his manner of engagement is anything but civil, respectful or conducive to true dialogue across differences, of which we need more, not less.”
Unfortunately, Yiannopoulos was invited by the UW College Republicans group to speak at their campus. During a confrontation between protesters and Yiannopoulos supporters outside of his event, a man was shot and seriously wounded.
For students looking to combat the hateful message of someone like Yiannopoulos, the proper path seems uncertain. After all, how do you properly confront an ideology that feeds off of confrontation?
The easiest option — and the one that other opinion columnists and myself have taken — is simply to ignore the trolls. But in the same way that they often consume the comments sections of our articles so too could they eat away at our campus discourse. And for the students who feel targeted by their hateful messages, the responding silence would be an added slight.
Therefore, we shouldn’t ignore, but rather adapt our tactics. We should prepare to reason with the unreasonable and properly protest those who wish to provoke. And in all our conversations, we should look to generate light rather than just heat.
CAMERON DICHTER is a College junior from Philadelphia, studying English. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. “Real Talk” usually appears every other Monday.
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