The first column I ever wrote was about UChicago Secrets. I had recently discovered the UChicago Secrets group on Facebook and found myself enamored by the idea of anonymous confessions, which I thought were important to breaking the veneer of perfection that often plagues selective educational institutions like ours. I was fascinated by the way that the page gave an outlet for unencumbered speech and open discourse. I even wrapped the column up by thanking the page and imploring it to “never leave us.”
These words have aged poorly.
UChicago Secrets disappeared without much warning in the spring of last year, shut down in the wake of an allegedly Francophobic submission that violated Facebook’s “no hate speech” policy. But UChicago Secrets was never gone for good. And as the newest iteration of the page, which was created in mid-April of last year, gains traction within the student body, I’ve come to rethink what I used to value about anonymous social media platforms.
At its best, a page like UChicago Secrets can be a place for fun, whimsical expressions of self, a platform that allows the campus community to come together and laugh at the absurdities of college life. But often, it can also become a place for divisiveness, for angry, unproductive political vitriol that fractures and alienates parts of the student body. Secrets has been heavily used as a platform for political discourse this quarter, both during the run-up to the student government election that pitted the progressive CARE slate against the more conservative Reform slate and in the wake of the ill-conceived and highly polarizing College Council proposal to prevent the use of student life fees to fund abortion via the Emergency Fund. It’s certainly encouraging to see students engage with these events. It’s great that there’s a desire to discuss these very relevant and very important political issues. Indeed, UChicago markets itself heavily as a place of open discourse, even around highly controversial, hot-button topics. That’s certainly an excellent ideal to uphold. But Secrets is, ultimately, a horrible place for productive political conversations. The way I see it, the heated debates waged on the page over the past month or so have led to little more than a growing sense of disillusionment regarding the very possibility of meaningful political discussion.
The anonymity that a page like Secrets affords has made it incredibly easy for much of the political content on the page to degenerate into ad hominem attacks, broad generalizations about groups of people, and passive-aggressive or just simply aggressive commentary that deepens the vast political divide, which already clearly exists at this school. During the unexpectedly contentious Student Government elections, numerous submissions (that have since been deleted) were posted attacking the character and motivations of members of both slates. Personal insults littered the comments. Misinformation, such as the accusation that members of the CARE slate were attempting to pay themselves (which was untrue), spread throughout the page, accompanied by doctored screenshots. Perhaps much of this can simply be chalked up to the fact that social media, as a whole, can be a difficult place to engage meaningfully with others. It can be exhausting to deal with a seemingly endless onslaught of posts, tweets, and comments that all evoke opinions—for example, pro-life or pro-choice—fundamentally contrary to what we believe, and it can be all too easy to simply block out and refuse to engage with any and all opposing viewpoints. It is far too easy to dehumanize the people attached to the words on our screens. It is difficult to determine whether a question is posed in good faith or solely intended to provoke a reaction. And the anonymity and overall structure of Secrets, which makes it difficult for the original poster of a submission to respond to comments without revealing their identity, only exacerbates the barriers to honest, civil dialogue that already plague the Internet at large.
I don’t know what it will take to foster healthy conversation between the progressive and conservative camps on opposing sides of the political divide. If anything, the recent arguments about abortion that have flooded the page seem only to reinforce the idea that people are simply talking through each other; pro-choice advocates try to convince pro-life supporters of ideas that are basically incongruent with a pro-life worldview, and vice versa. But one thing is clear: We need to stop trying to engage in political debate on UChicago Secrets. Stop responding to politically charged submissions in hopes of changing someone’s mind. Stop submitting deliberately inflammatory political posts. If you have questions, concerns, or disagreements with on-campus politics, go talk in person to the people actually involved.
None of this is to say that there isn’t a place for political debate on campus and even on the Internet. We do need to have these conversations. We do need to have these debates. Perhaps what we need is to create more spaces for ourselves to have these conversations in a collected, civil manner. It would be helpful to have more in-person roundtables or public, moderated debates surrounding contemporary political issues, both on campus and across the country as a whole.
Additionally, thoughtfully constructed online platforms such as Exploring Race, a website that is being developed to allow UChicago students to engage with racial issues in a Q&A format, can be a tremendous resource for productive discussion around contentious subjects. Political conversations across the ideological divide are imperative, if we are to have any hope of moving forward in this time of increasingly brutal party politics. UChicago Secrets just isn’t the place for them.
Lucas Du is a second-year in the College.