Correction: This op-ed has been updated to clarify that Penn College Republicans was not the only student organization on campus to release a statement recognizing 9/11 this year. The DP regrets the error.
This past Monday, as I have for the last two years during my time at Penn, I woke up at 7 a.m. to place 2,977 flags on College Green with the rest of Penn College Republicans to honor those who lost their lives in the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Although this year President Liz Magill recognized the memorial on her Instagram, I was not surprised to see the complete disregard for the tragedy’s anniversary by the University itself. Despite the proximity of Penn to New York City, the 16 alumni who were killed in the terrorist attacks, and acknowledgment by peer institutions there was neither a social media post, a statement, nor even an email from Penn recognizing the tragedy.
While I had expected our memorial to be one of few acknowledgements of 9/11 on campus, many other students were not expecting this type of behavior from Penn, taking to Sidechat to express their frustrations. The most trending comment (with over 1,200 upvotes) read: “Penn didn’t even post for 9/11. The only memorial we got was from the mf College Republicans. As a Democrat, not remembering this tragedy that left thousands of families ripped apart is heartbreaking.”
The colorful commentary in the post aside, it and many of the replies that followed echoed similar sentiments about concern over Penn’s failure to recognize the 22nd anniversary of 9/11. Many people were frustrated that 9/11 was as treated in a partisan manner, while some (self-acknowledged) Muslim students said they disliked that there is a perception of remembering 9/11 as being “anti-Muslim.” The posts, including one that said “This school is too woke,” covered an array of political discourse on 9/11.
Although the concerns these points raise are legitimate and very well-founded, I find the forum and manner with which they were posted to be equally as frustrating. Why did students not take to Penn’s Instagram or Facebook comments to express these thoughts?
Sidechat’s forum has the intended effect on users: By granting a veil of anonymity, it allows people to remain unaccountable for their opinions. This seems to indicate a new form of “self-censorship”: one in which people are comfortable expressing views only when they can remain free from consequences. This can have positive impacts, like dismantling misconceptions about the state of mental health on campus, but it can also make people feel comfortable expressing hateful opinions. In the case of political discourse, anonymity can often demean the value and impact of speech.
The call for a “column in the DP” on Sidechat about Penn’s lack of 9/11 commemoration indicates the self-awareness of Sidechat’s users about the limiting nature of their discourse. Without being able to put a name to a stance, viewpoints that could make substantial change fizzle away into the anonymous abyss of websites like Sidechat.
Both the humanizing element of putting a face to an opinion as well as the commitment that ownership provides help to signify the gravity of an issue that could otherwise be lost. Similarly, the word limit on platforms like Sidechat stifles the nuance that these conversations require. If the Penn administration is to really understand what is disappointing about their disregarding the anniversary of a national tragedy, students need to be willing to honestly own those opinions.
Conversations in hushed voices, on Sidechat or otherwise, are a manifestation of one of Penn’s signature problems: self-censorship. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression recently released its annual College Free Speech rankings for 2024 and ranked Penn second to last. Some of the most startling data they collected indicated that 51% of Penn students surveyed said they curb their speech on campus at least once or twice a month, and 55% of students expressed concerns about “damaging their reputation because someone misunderstands something they have said or done.” This second statistic is crucial to understanding the Sidechat phenomenon. Self-censorship is not simply a question of not speaking out, but it is one of not speaking out when you fear the impacts of your speech.
In an institution that is supposed to be truth-seeking in nature and a center for civic engagement, these sorts of numbers are startling and saddening. They create a climate in which students who do speak out feel as though they are alone in their viewpoints, taking away the opportunity to learn and expand one another’s perspectives, and in the case of the 9/11 response example, fail to hold Penn and other institutions accountable. In situations like this, if students were more willing to express themselves in class, in the pages of the DP, or in the social media comments of Penn’s accounts, the University would have a greater awareness of the student body’s points of view, and hopefully, take them to heart.
A comment in the string of Sidechat comments explained: “Democrats over the last few decades have conceded the identity of patriotism to the [R]epublicans. As such they've hurt their own brand by increasingly being associated as the party of anti-American, out of touch college kids. It’s not great.” This type of association is one many liberal, Democratic students want to avoid, and is an indication of how something with as wide of a consensus as the tragic nature of 9/11 might be discussed in a censored manner. It is often the case at Penn that fear of associating with Republican aesthetic values or other things which may result in social isolation reduces the conversation around political issues to one that is overly sanitized and/or anonymous.
Recognizing all of these convoluted political realities, even if in anonymity, is the first step to improving our campus dialogue. But as the person who was willing to write the column that was called for in the anonymous Sidechat posts, I encourage you to tell a friend, raise your hand in class, or write a guest column in the DP the next time you have something you want to say. Anonymity can be safe, but ownership and accountability can make a difference.
LEXI BOCCUZZI is a College senior studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Stamford, Conn. Her email is email@example.com.