Fingerboxes and Flame Wars
The Value of Allstu
By Timmy Broderick
Allstu is alive! I had been really worried about him. Ever since being turned into a digest, I hadn’t seen him around. Most people do not share my love of ‘stu, but ‘stu adds significant value to my life and, I will argue, to the larger Kenyon community’s life, too. Unmoderated, ‘stu is one of a kind: he’s a lost and found box, a jobs listing, a bulletin board, a debate hall, a meme generator, et al. During Freshman Orientation, my UCC drunkenly told me, “subscribe to allstu!” I did so, and suddenly eighty-message-long email threads filled my inbox, overwhelming me with Kenyon memes and inside jokes. Inane and irreverent allstu wars clogged my inbox. Yet the silliness more than made up for the annoyance. Am I nostalgic for fingerboxes? Maybe. (P.S. I’m selling my great-grandfather’s gorgeous spalted-maple fingerbox, complete with walnut-trim and Brazilian rosewood inlays – at $25, it’s a real steal. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if interested.)
My love of ‘stu is more nuanced than a simple nostalgia for the absurd. Some flame wars revealed nothing more than the nasty side of Kenyon, a festering resentment due to our forced isolation. To me, however, they also seemed like a workshop, a forum for the community to shape and reshape our ideas outside the classroom. Thus, beyond the boxes, the memes, and the lost keys lies a deeper ‘stu, one that, in my opinion, is absolutely necessary for a small community like Kenyon. Why? I believe that ‘stu was and remains the only forum – analog or digital – where public discourse really gets at the issue’s heart, often because the debaters forego politically correct speech; they argue from their hearts. I am not advocating being cruel to people. Rather, I want to show you how Kenyon benefits from people shooting from the hip on allstu.
This year ‘stu has been relatively quiet until recently. The only major flame wars this year concerned Steven Salaita’s visit to campus and the installation of the mock Israeli-Palestinian wall by Kenyon Students for Justice in Palestine (KSJP) on Middle Path. Apparently only Gaza and the Canadian-Goose-coat kidnapper are keeping ‘stu alive. Digging around on the Google Group shows that only 371 students are subscribed, most of whom use the digest to package the received emails together. By comparison, allemp – the staff and faculty equivalent – has 714 subscribers. I couldn’t find the number of subscribers prior to ‘stu’s transformation into a Google Group in January 2014, but it seems significantly less active than in previous years.
Why has allstu faded away? Two reasons: first, the current wars seem more polemical. Going through my email archives, I am rewarded with people trolling one another but also interesting and fascinating discussions regarding all sorts of topics, including sexuality, technology, racism, art. Perhaps the drop in subscribers led to this radicalization. Given these ideological diatribes, it’s no wonder that people don’t subscribe anymore. Second, I think the increasing popularity of alternative social media options – Facebook and Yik Yak, for example – have furthered ‘stu’s demise. Facebook provides a better platform for announcing parties and events, while Yik Yak’s anonymity proves too enticing to resist.
However, neither Facebook nor Yik Yak suffices as a replacement for ‘stu or as a general public forum at Kenyon. Facebook doesn’t have a place for the entire community to gather, and most of the faculty, staff, administrators, and community members do not have Yik Yak. Furthermore, Yik Yak’s anonymity breeds vitriol, as we saw with the comments directed at Crozier and Take Back the Night in the fall. Although, this isn’t to say that childish name-calling and vulgarity don’t happen on ‘stu; last week’s emails reminded us all of that.
We all live, at most, within a 15-minute walk of each other. You’d think that these digital forums wouldn’t be needed, that this closeness would promote fervent public discussion and activism, but I have seen very little of it during my four years. Maybe our reputation as a writing school unfortunately extends into our politics; people at Kenyon often hide behind written word instead of confronting the issue in person.
The public discussions I have attended haven’t been the best, either. Both KSJP and Kenyon Students and Friends of Israel (KSFI) held forums to discuss reactions to the wall. I believe that both groups sincerely wanted to foster dialogue surrounding the event, but there were problems; those meetings and most other political discourse at Kenyon – and in the world, for that matter – take place within a specific context and worldview. An inherent bias permeates the walls of those rooms.
While totally neutral spaces do not exist, I think that ‘stu has the potential to create a gathering space where only Kenyon’s flag flies. Rather than occupying a Palestinian- or Israeli-built room, the bias, then, will lean towards Kenyon. This has its own problems, as well, but for this issue it provides a better option, I think. Furthermore, no one should want the existence of a neutral space; it erases all histories in the name of tolerance when, in reality, the dominant ideology of the time controls the space. Thus, even if J Street U – the moderate group in the campus’ Israeli-Palestinian debate – ran a forum, the issues still stand because political correctness dominates liberal culture, Kenyon’s mainstream political culture.
I am not bashing political correctness on principle. Politically correct speech has made huge contributions to humanity, including furthering the civil rights and feminist movements throughout the last century. However, I have found that politically correct speech often inhibits and retards discussion. It assumes that everyone shares a universal rational standpoint, but such rationality doesn’t exist. It is a myth. Liberals preach tolerate, but when other views clash with their fundamental beliefs, they throw it away. Full toleration becomes difficult when your fundamental belief eventually comes into contact with my fundamental belief – in the debate between creationists and evolutionary biologists, for example. Neither of them give an inch because to do so forfeits their entire position.
By not forcing people to budge, ‘stu displays the campus’ extremes. Whether their views are good, bad, apathetic, or otherwise, real and honest feelings appear. Some views’ roots cannot be pulled up, but any attempt to change someone’s perspective must start at this base. Other views, however, are less secure; if you tug and pull and fight with that root, it just might come out. Uprooting can be painful for everyone involved, especially considering that some of the most firmly entrenched views are often racist, sexist, and bigoted, which make some students claim to feel unsafe. But some situations ask us to confront these views, to not “unsubscribe” at the first hint of frustration or anxiety. During the recent back-and-forth on Israel-Palestine, Director of Class Giving Ryan Stewart ‘08 chimed in on what it means to feel unsafe, stating that, “Passionate dialogues on campus should challenge (or threaten, depending on your viewpoint) the security of your comfort zone and beliefs but should not cause one to fear for one’s physical safety.”
Furthermore, no one should want the existence of a neutral space; it erases all histories in the name of tolerance when, in reality, the dominant ideology of the time controls the space. Thus, even if J Street U – the moderate group in the campus’ Israeli-Palestinian debate – ran a forum, the issues still stand because political correctness dominates liberal culture, Kenyon’s mainstream political culture.
I do not promote avenues of dehumanization nor those who preach them, be it on allstu or in person. And Kenyon sometimes fails to support those students who feel unsafe, a problem that leads some to advocate unilaterally for political correctness. In tempering our dialogue, we lose something: dissent, a vital component to any education. Dissent is especially important in small communities. Instead of a singular, dominant view, dissent provides the campus with a multifaceted understanding of the issue. Through his rejection of political correctness, ‘stu can provide our small community with a refreshing diversity.
Furthermore, problematizing certain speech as “racist” or “sexist,” we label them “bad” and ban their speakers them from our conversations, but in doing so we don’t understand why that sentiment was expressed. To rid our communities of such speech, we must engage its speaker as a human being, one with his or her own unique history, muddling through life as we all do.
Last year, I belonged to a community called “Many Minds; One Heart,” which engaged in trying to meet each other outside the politically correct norms of our society, hoping to create an empathy that transcended the roles we play every day. It’s mission statement states that, “The goal is to attack the status quo, not people. We want to make people feel uncomfortable with the status quo in order to change it. It all must come from a place of empathy though. … our goal is not to ‘win.’ Our goal is to create growth and change; to use love as a means to overcome the issues that plague our community and to rekindle the human connection.”
Most flame wars do not seek growth and change. They merely mark the distance made in the latest pissing contest. Furthermore, when not even a quarter of the school sees the conversation, ‘stu’s relevance quickly drops. Still, he has value. While his digital nature allows people to hide behind their words, he also provides a place for people to duke out their ideas, uninhibited. And again, if we want to rid ourselves of the problems of the various -isms, we must go for the roots, not the stem.