Expressing your opinions on the internet is a lot like picking your nose at a traffic light. You might feel like you're in a private space, but really, everyone can see you.
Cyberspace can be a difficult concept to wrap our brains around. If I'm sitting home alone in my underwear, blaring the Billy Elliot soundtrack, it can be hard to think of myself as being in "public." Yet if I'm tweeting, posting to Facebook, or participating in some other way in online discourse, that's exactly "where" I am.
And what's more, if I identify myself online as belonging to an organization, company, or even a segment of society, in many people's minds my actions reflect on other people who identify the same way as I.
The need to counter this guilt by association was likely a factor in the creation of the new Tumblr O.S.U. Haters, which concentrates, archives, and exposes, bigoted and hateful tweets by Ohio State University students. To quote the blog's operators:
Ohio State is no place for hate! We expose tweets from haters here, especially those which were deleted.
As long as there is hate speech at OSU, we will continue to expose it. Once OSU becomes the model of diversity and inclusion, OSU Haters will have accomplished its goal.
Just as the new world of social media has provided new outlets for bigotry and ignorance, the blog represents an innovative approach to countering those same forces. There are no calls for sanctions against the students represented, except when their words actively promote acts of violence. Neither are there counter arguments, reasoned or otherwise. Rather, all that is done is to present and preserve (against deletion) the students' own words for people to read and make their own judgements on.
Fortunately, blatant racism and bigotry are no longer anywhere near as acceptable as they once were in the social world of higher education. And I have to confess that I don't find myself overly sympathetic to the students whose inclusion on O.S.U Haters has had deleterious consequences in their social lives.
That said, I do appreciate that kids do and say stupid things, and that saying and doing stupid things are a hallmark of the college experience.
In some ways we now live in a far less forgiving world than the one I grew up in. I said and did some very stupid things in college, and for the most part, there is no record of my youthful indiscretions outside of the memories of myself and a few close friends. The internet on the other hand, is rather like the proverbial elephant, it never forgets.
For the students who will hopefully grow and learn from their experiences, being featured on O.S.U Haters that is no bad thing. From this they can gain a powerful story of a journey out of ignorance and hatred into knowledge and acceptance.
For those who stand by their bigotry I imagine this experience will be of little importance right up until a prospective employer, partner, or their own children, someday find this record. Moreover, I imagine that what they've said so far will hardly be their last public exhibition of hatred.
Unfortunately for the LGBT community, in the United States we have not yet reached a place as a society where a tactic like this would be effective against the most outspoken of our enemies. The politicians, preachers, and pundits, who most egregiously engage in hate speech directed at us are too proud of their words and beliefs, and far too many of our fellow citizens embrace their bigoted ideals, for public shaming to be an effective tool yet.
But hatred against LGBT people is included in O.S.U Haters' catalog of terrible tweets, meaning that the site's creators expect that calling out homo- and transphobic speech in a public forum will discourage its use. Once the students reading and creating projects like this fully come into their own social and political power as adults, perhaps the tide will turn.
It could be that we're not so far from a day when the public presence of the Bryan Fischers, Todd Akins, and Victoria Jacksons of the world will be relegated to public shaming sites like the one working to change the atmosphere at Ohio State University.