Volume XXXIV, Issue 3, December 14, 2012
It has been more than a month now since Amherst students were introduced to The Amherst Muck-Rake, and I am still amazed at the speed with which we grew accustomed to the satirical publication and began to take it for granted. A few days of mild confusion gave way to a state of affairs that I have now accepted as just another of the many aspects of life as a student at Amherst College: a couple new wise-cracking headlines and funny image posts on my Facebook feed everyday, and occasional discussion among friends of the “Did you see the one today where…” variety. The Muck-Rake did not effect initial surprise as much as initial acceptance, and it seems we already think of it—even if we do not think much of it—as as much a common Amherst experience as longstanding institutions such as The Amherst Student or Val.
Our collective status as early-adopters might be cause for praise or concern in its own right, but I would argue that, at the very least, we have arrived at nonchalance toward The Muck-Rake without adequately considering the implications of what I am sure was many students’ first thought when they encountered the faux-news source: “Who the hell are these guys?”
At The Indicator, it has long been our policy not to publish anonymous articles. We believe that there is a value in taking personal responsibility for your ideas that simply cannot coexist with anonymity and that endorsing anonymity as an option within our publication will lend itself to more abuse than it is worth. With The Muck-Rake, on the other hand, everything is anonymous: Posts to its blog are made from pseudonyms that cannot be traced back to any real identity. Of course, we may be past the point of initial ignorance—some of us may know someone who claims to know one of the writers, etc.—but fundamentally, there is still no one person to whom anyone (outside The Muck-Rake, at least) could feel comfortable attributing a given post. No single human being can be held publicly responsible for any specific content. The humor is disembodied, stemming not from any peer of ours on this campus, but from an impersonal organization about which we know nothing; published with no specified author, the articles would be fundamentally anonymous even if we knew the individual identities of every writer for The Muck-Rake.
So what does it say about the writers of The Muck-Rake that they are anonymous? The same thing anonymity always suggests of writers who choose to adopt it: They are afraid. I do not intend this as an insult to them or their publication—being afraid is not a flaw, and there are plenty of things that one might reasonably fear. I only mean to note that the only reason a writer ever opts for anonymity is fear of the consequences of being personally associated with his words. We see anonymous publications in places with laws or customs that forbid certain kinds of speech and from writers whose ideas are so controversial within their communities that they fear public vitriol.
Anonymity in writing, in other words, is a response to a particular speech environment, and so the question of what anonymity says about The Muck-Rake is really a question about what the anonymity of The Muck-Rake says about us. Are the fears of these secretive satirists simply unjustified, or is there actually something about the Amherst community that is hostile towards certain types of expression? I would argue that the latter is the case, and that the choice on the part of the writers of The Muck-Rake to be anonymous ought to make us think about the sort of speech environment we create on campus.
The Amherst community takes itself very seriously as a community: We often speak of what it means for Amherst that Amherst does this or that, and we frequently worry more about issues of campus culture than we do about those of national culture. It is natural to be concerned with local, institutional matters, of course, but we seem to take this concern to an extreme. Few are exempt from “the Amherst bubble”—in fact, we at The Indicator make an entire publication of worrying seriously about the Amherst community. We as Amherst students even take ourselves seriously when we analyze how seriously we take ourselves, as I am doing now and as you have done if you have ever spoken of “the Amherst bubble”.
Of course, as we have seen all too clearly over the course of this semester, there are times when it is appropriate to take a hard look at issues of campus culture as issues of campus culture—I by no means intend to imply that we ought to ignore the very real community that we create at this school or the issues that are born of it. But when we take those issues so seriously that we create taboo subjects and relegate some points of view to the realm of the unspeakable, we have gone too far. Satire is a point of view, one that belittles an issue by attempting to humorously reduce it to absurdity on its own terms. The element of humor does not categorically remove satire from the realm of the opinionated, but it typically blunts the sharp edge of the attack. We can often laugh at satire, even if it is directed at our own groups, institutions, or ideas, or even at us personally. In other words, satire asks us to take ourselves less seriously than we usually do.
What does it mean that we read, discuss, and sometimes enjoy The Muck-Rake? It means we do not take ourselves too seriously to laugh at ourselves. But what does it mean that Amherst’s satire comes from an anonymous source? It means we do take ourselves too seriously to laugh at ourselves publicly. We read, we laugh, and we share our enjoyment with our close friends. We laugh as we agree that a certain post went too far. We laugh because what is being said is something that we wanted to say but know that no specific person could ever say on this campus without being publicly attacked. To paraphrase a classic of our time, The Muck-Rake is the hero we need, but it really is not the one we deserve. Perhaps the greatest criticism that The Muck-Rake makes of Amherst is the one implicit in the publication’s very nature—that ours is, unfortunately, a community in which its satire cannot be safely owned.