Cooper: Yik Yak reflects issues with censorship, bigotry on Northwestern’s campus

Danny Cooper, Columnist

At least 10 times throughout my day, I scroll through Yik Yak, which is largely a stream of innocuous comments and complaints about school and life in general. Amid posts about the broken doors at the Technological Institute and roommate complaints, however, I will come across a post about race, sex, gender or any similar topic, which can quickly turn controversial.

Nothing good comes from these conversations. They are just left to rot in cyberspace, a fading relic of the intolerance that exists, often silently, on our seemingly welcoming campus.  The back-and-forth responses are typically impassioned, but never is anything learned from them.

Though the contents and sentiments behind these posts vary from misguided to malicious, there is one constant: It would be difficult to find such a conversation occurring in real life at Northwestern.

In the past, perhaps these debates could have been played out in lecture halls and discussion sections, giving people the opportunity to see varied perspectives on an argument and hopefully learn something from it. However, the strong pressure to completely self-censor one’s ideas at NU plays a significant role in stifling these conversations and forcing them behind the anonymous veil of Yik Yak, where open-mindedness and learning usually takes a backseat to name-calling and bigotry.

This isn’t an issue specific to our school, but NU has been criticized recently for restricting speech. NU was recently named one of the 10 worst schools in the nation for free speech by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education due to the Title IX investigation into Communication Prof. Laura Kipnis and allegations of censorship of Atrium, a magazine edited by Feinberg School of Medicine faculty.

In response to the ranking, NU referred to a statement made in June 2015 by University President Morton Schapiro and Provost Dan Linzer on academic freedom, which cited NU’s dedication to “vigorous inquiry and robust debate.” I don’t doubt this dedication is real and important to University administration.

I also agree with Schapiro’s statement in a January op-ed for the Washington Post, that “students don’t fully embrace uncomfortable learning unless they are themselves comfortable.” I’m not suggesting students feel uncomfortable in what should be a safe learning environment. However, I do think uncomfortable conversations are occasionally worthwhile. When people feel unable to voice unpopular opinions, those opinions end up expressed negatively through an outlet like Yik Yak, in an environment where little learning takes place.

People shouldn’t be as cruel as they are on Yik Yak. Hearing such terrible things in person would be devastating for anyone targeted, and it’s likely most of the nasty comments posted online would never be said face-to-face.

But if these conversations are occurring, we should at least try as a community to hold them in a more productive, sensitive manner. Driving intolerance further underground has dangerous consequences, and this is reflected in the sea of bigotry that is NU’s Yik Yak.

Danny Cooper is a Medill freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].
The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.