OPINION: Harassment Cannot be a Substitute for Discourse

The last few days have proven divisive in the Pomona College community. In fact, as a senior, I can’t remember a time where students were more bitterly divided. It comes as no surprise, however, as the issue at stake this time is our grades and, more importantly for many, our futures. Still, the amount of vitriol is surprising even to someone as jaded about campus dialogue as myself.

Some of these students do not believe that those who want grades are acting in good faith, but rather believe a policy to opt-into grades is “evil,” in the words of one poster. Others have attacked the very identity of supporters. In one Facebook exchange, a student’s identity was questioned, and being told that he was not Latino, despite being an immigrant from South America. Still, another poster discounted the opinions of low-income minority students who want a graded system. Yet, many students in all demographic groups, including those cited by supporters of Universal Pass as needing it, prefer a graded option. The number of Pomona students out of 681 polled that approved of Pass/Fail with a graded option was 459. In contrast, Universal Pass/Fail drew support from only 322. The number of those who approve of Universal Pass was slightly higher with 341 students. Still, that means that an opt-in graded policy is 25% more popular than an identical policy without the graded option.

To the point, while most students have committed to quality dialogue and intellectual discussions expected of Pomona College students, a significant number of Universal Pass supporters have chosen instead to harass and dox supporters of a graded option online. Not only is this behavior unbecoming of a Pomona College student, but it dilutes the ability for students to be open and honest in discussing important policy. One thread on Twitter sought to “expose those who need to be canceled.”  Another tweet stated “the positive reacts on the post of the girl in the 2023 [Facebook group] page advocating against universal policy are giving me my list of people to cancel over the next 6 semesters.”

Now, for everyone who isn’t aware of what being “cancelled” is, it is essentially the process of people attempting to socially ostracize someone because of opinions they hold. Such actions, and threats that they are, attempt to silence people through social intimidation and threats. Such actions are not conducive to a community operating in trust. In this above thread, students posted screen captures of the names of those who had liked posts advocating for a grading option on Facebook, with the intention of isolating those people from their own college. And all this vitriol for a simple difference of opinion. This behavior is also a violation of privacy, as opinions about the grading policy took place in private groups only accessible to Pomona students. By putting their names out in public, it is an attempt to shame them and place a target on their backs for harassment.

But, you don’t need to take my word for it; they admit this behavior themselves. Another student tweeted that “[a] lot of people deserve to be bullied.”

This sect of universal Pass supporters are not interested in civility. Supporters of an “evil” opt-in grade policy are “f*cks.”  Another student made his compassion for others known by posting, “F*ck your GPA and law school application.”

Another poster referred to supporters of grades as “pigs” and “narcs.” Another reflected on how pre-medical school and pre-law school students “made them sick.”

Still, nothing above beats out the implied threats posted against those that oppose universal Pass. One tweet stated “If you are against universal policy, lmk (let me know) I just want to talk.”

Most drastically, a particular Pomona student tweeted “[e]very single faculty member that was against A/A- deserves to be poisoned, I do not give a f*ck. Y’all love to have us read essays and books and spend whole 3 hr seminars discussing histories of marginalization while ignoring the perpetuation in your own classrooms.”

What is behind this vitriol? It goes beyond mere disagreement. It is indicative of a lack of respect and an inability to see that even those that think different policies are better can have good intentions. They do not want to see these intentions and people who criticized the toxicity were called privileged, or presumed to be hidden bigots. This trend is a broader problem, the extent of which is beginning to be revealed by the disagreement over grading policy. It is no wonder that only 34% of Pomona students feel comfortable expressing their opinions to other students according to a 2018 Gallup poll of Pomona students. When students are at risk of having their names plastered over social media in a form of online harassment and ritual social ostracization, when students identities are attacked and demeaned, when vague threats are being leveled simply because a student expressed an opinion, we have a problem. These students are creating their own version of George Orwell’s “Two Minutes of Hate,” and they probably would even proudly admit that. This way of thinking sees opposition as inherently evil, something to be crushed, rather than a difference of opinions between well-meaning people. They do not want coexistence of opinions, but rather seek to enforce totalitarian unity of thought. If Pomona College’s administration cares at all about improving campus climate and campus culture, they will seek to discourage this toxic thinking and promote true dialogue.

These sorts of behavior and rhetoric are toxic to a campus community, especially one as small and supposedly tight-knit as Pomona’s. It smacks of thought policing, the very thing a college education is intended to prevent. And, while some may see it as harmless,  being “cancelled” can have a profound impact on someone’s life. Maybe there are circumstances when it’s appropriate, but one in which the “crime” is a difference of opinion, even on a subject as important to students as how they’ll be graded, is no such circumstance. And to attack the moral character of fellow students, to declare that “every single faculty member that was against A/A- deserves to be poisoned,” isn’t just unkind; it’s intellectually dishonest. There may be pros and cons to all the proposed grading policies, but to declare supporters of a more individualized system than a universal pass “selfish” is pointless, it’s rude, and it paints a picture of Pomona students as completely unwilling to hear points of view beyond their own.

But this characterization isn’t the case, a fact I myself only learned after having gone home following the shutdown of college life. Needless to say, quarantine has been more a detriment than a blessing for my social life, but one notable benefit has been the newfound impetus to reach out to friends I otherwise wouldn’t see for months. Many of these friends go to Pomona, but many more go to colleges all across the country. And of those who don’t go to Pomona, the vast majority have expressed shock that we’re seriously considering a universal Pass/PNR/I policy, let alone an A/A- one. Their own institutions have mostly adopted opt-in grading and, while some have chosen the former option, a significant majority have gone with the latter. It’s even true that, at the Claremont Colleges, only Pomona College is considering not allowing its students to receive grades.

The same holds for my Pomona friends—of those I’ve spoken to, at least 60% have been strongly in favor of a policy allowing either letter grading or a P/NC. Those who object to this are a significant and very vocal minority, but a minority nonetheless. Their power comes from their aggression; they make themselves heard by shouting down anyone who disagrees. As someone who often has views that place me in the minority at Pomona College, I understand what it is like to feel passionately about a subject but be outnumbered. It is important for healthy discussion to have dissenting viewpoints. However, the manner in which some have approached this discussion is unacceptable. For the faculty to accede to their demands for a universal Pass would be tantamount to saying that accusations of “apologist fascist ignorant racist centrist bourgeois liberal nonsense” are an appropriate response to the simple statement “how you treat people matters,” that having a different perspective on a grading policy is grounds to be “cancelled,” that Pomona students should live in fear of online reprisal by their peers for expressing views that, while disagreeable to some, provide a thoughtful and well-reasoned perspective on an issue near and dear to the hearts of most students. The Pomona College I chose to attend wouldn’t stand for that; I hope the Pomona College I will graduate from won’t either.

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