During the days before winter break began, in the wake of the Ferguson and Eric Garner decisions, our campus erupted over racial insensitivity sparked by a picture posted on Instagram. The photo, from Halloween, showed six Williams students each wearing a costume consisting of a taco suit, fake mustache, and sombrero. A group of students took to Facebook to argue that the costumes were insensitive to, and stereotypical of, Mexican culture.
I understand the outrage over the costumes, but I was concerned in equal measure that, as the night wore on, this reaction to ignorance and cultural insensitivity devolved into a vicious witch hunt. An opportunity to teach had somehow turned into an arena for cyberbullying. While the actions of the “Taco Six” were harmful to the community, they were clearly not malicious as much as massively thoughtless. This distinction does not ameliorate the insensitivity and hurtfulness of the costumes, but it does—or rather, should—guide our reactions. Our everyday, common-sense morality is more than adequate to recognize the difference between ignorance and malice. Neither is good, and the two may at times go together, but they are not equally bad. And more importantly, they prompt different responses.
The same caveat cannot be made for the cyberbullies who launched an extended and personal polemic against the costumed students and called them out by name on social media.
Now, full disclosure, I come from a place of privilege: I am a white male from middle-class suburbia. I know many at this school have been oppressed by the dominant white culture and I cannot relate to that struggle. But I do know that there is an important difference between expressing frustration at an incident and perniciously attacking individuals. I want to make something clear: if someone has offended you, you have every right to tell them. You should email, or private message them, or better yet, talk to them in person. Lambasting these individuals publicly on social media does a disservice to you and to them. When did we as a school decide we would revert to middle school-era tactics to solve our problems?
There have been some who have defended their cyberbullying by calling it activism. I am a huge fan of activism. I wish this school had more of it. But ruthlessly attacking individuals on social media isn’t activism. It’s just mean. If you passionately believe these students did something wrong, you should confront them in a civil manner. Rise over the ignorance; do not sink below it into malice. I want to reiterate the fact that there were many, many comments on social media that did not attack the so-called Taco Six. This piece is directed at individuals who, despite the clear opportunity for learning, chose to antagonize, rather than educate their fellow students.
Earlier this year there were two pieces that came out in this publication entitled “Victim Culture” and “A Response to Victim Culture.” These were the best articles I read all semester, but I had a problem with them; they were both written anonymously. Anonymity was something I didn’t really understand. It wasn’t until the Taco Six incident that I understood why the authors of those editorials had sought to mask their identity; they feared retribution from their peers. The authors of these two pieces sought to have a conversation about an incredibly important topic on campus, but I wager that it was fear of cyberbullying that led them to publish namelessly. We as a school have created a culture on campus that has successfully muted dialogue on controversial topics. If we are to be a campus that moves forward on these issues we cannot solely rely on social media as a platform for debate. To do so would only enable hateful cyberbullying and discourage those with meaningful contributions to express themselves.
What a small group of Williams students decided to wear one night was insensitive, but how a few members of our community responded was even worse. Last month showed that our campus has a long way to go before we can all feel safe. Exploring and discussing these topics is incredibly important if we are to grow as a community. Imagine if the hateful character assaults were replaced with conversations that provided explanations to those who acted offensively. This is not to absolve the costume wearers of their guilt; they wronged members of this community, and should apologize for, and learn from, what I hope was a mistake.
The “Taco Six” controversy finally points to social media as the common vector of insensitivity and the unproductive sort of response that only adds wrong to wrong. The networks that purport to connect communities and enable communication have only made it more difficult to stage productive dialogues.
The kind of posts and comments put online would never be enacted or spoken in person. We view social media as a world separate from the real one, a world without empathy, compassion, and accountability. Living, breathing humans are reduced to “profiles” or reputations—names, blurbs, and a few curated photos—disturbingly easy to demonize or drag through the mud. This is not a world where change is created. In order to change our world we must face both our fears and each other. I hope to grab coffee with some of you to discuss this more; I go to Goodrich most mornings and could always use some company.