Volume XXXV, Issue 4, May 10, 2013
Over the past semester, I’ve intended to send my thoughts to The Indicator but never actually followed through. It wasn’t due to a shortage of opinions or stories I wanted to share, but rather a reluctance to attach my name to my work. This was motivated by the trepidation of allowing myself to be vulnerable. The fear of exposing deep insecurities and thoughts that might change the ways your classmates view you can be arresting. But I should not have this problem. Not at Amherst College, where we are supposed to be a small, close community built on trust, shared goals and mutual understanding. However, I am skeptical that we are such a community; systemic social problems stand between us and such an open environment.
In my short time here at the College, I’ve heard the word “weird” used much too often to describe anything that does not immediately fit into the expected norm. It is heartbreaking to see a person with a bevy of experiences, ideas, and emotions be carelessly and sometimes irrevocably reduced to a single word based on a statement or action of vulnerability. All this, just because someone didn’t take the time to understand where another individual was coming from or didn’t assume the responsibility of withholding judgment when they couldn’t understand. Anticipating the argument that the word “weird” might sometimes be used with a positive connotation, I must say that its application in this context has been largely pejorative.
For instance, at the Day of Dialogue and the vigil at Memorial Hill last semester, people revealed things about themselves that required them to put great trust in their audience. However, after these events, those individuals were sometimes judged through the lens of their secrets (if not to their faces, then hushed and behind their backs). In effect, one secret was revealed but another created in its place. The worst manifestation of this is when information learned in “safe spaces” affects one’s judgment of a person and their actions in other contexts. I do not believe this is conscious or malicious—I have been guilty of slipping into this myself, though I like to believe that I am generally able to catch myself before causing any damage.
The root of the problem appears to be that the vulnerability is rarely mutual. Where there should be conversation and exchange there are individuals laying themselves bare and allowing others to pass judgment, in the hope that they will understand, if not admit that they feel the same way. When we speak of hope, we enter that treacherous world of chance, and I am unwilling to leave something as important as my identity up to probability. I came here expecting that my classmates and I would at the very least try to relate to each other.
This inadvertently sets up a power dynamic in which the confessor gives up all control. This dynamic exists especially in a magazine such as this one, where confessors (authors) must sign their names, but readers have no such obligation. I must applaud those who have displayed courage, some on a regular basis, by writing for this particular publication and other magazines, blogs, or newspapers. They are not only engaging in one-sided vulnerability, but they are also doing so in a way that leaves them unable to identify their audience.
Authors often have to deal with the fact that they lose ownership of a piece of writing when they send it out into the world, but in this context they also have to come to terms with the reality of signing away a piece of their identity, especially in a community as small as this one, where everyone knows everyone by three or fewer degrees. Author anonymity seems like one possible way to reclaim some of the power, or at least attempt to level the playing field and lower the stakes. Even if it is not possible to have absolute anonymity due to the small-school nature of Amherst, where you will have some people making intelligent (and accurate) guesses as to the author’s identity, a shade of doubt separates writer from reader, and there’s something about that two-way uncertainty that seems to resolve the issue a little bit. There are myriad reasons why anonymity in a publication could be a bad idea, but is it worth it for this one crucially important benefit?
However, even granting that it is indeed worth the trouble, it is not obvious that this is the best solution. Consider PostSecret, the website where people anonymously share their secrets. I really started to think about the concept after Frank Warren, the website’s founder, came to campus to speak about it. While I recognize that it has its place and can be extraordinarily empowering, it seems removed from reality in some ways I believe are inherent to anonymity. Closer to home, the Women of Amherst play this year consisted entirely of quotes from Amherst women, and even then I felt more removed than I did as I heard the stories on Memorial Hill or during the Day of Dialogue.
Then perhaps the call is not for the possibility for anonymity in college publications, but rather to change our community, as well as the nature of our conversations. A call to be able to trust one another and fall freely, knowing you will always be caught. Perhaps this is overly optimistic and naïve, but I’m just a first year; I’ve got time to become cynical.