“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”
Most children growing up in the United States have had that phrase hammered into them in school, out on playgrounds, and at home after they just made their younger sibling burst into tears.
The Golden Rule teaches them to “treat others as they want to be treated.” The Bible urges them to “treat thy neighbor as thyself.” Buddhism expects its followers to put themselves in the shoes of others and treat them with kindness if they wish to achieve nirvana. Hinduism’s rule of dharma advises its adherents that “one should never do that to another which one regards as injurious itself.” In the prophet Muhammad’s farewell sermons he enjoined his disciples to “hurt no one so that no one may hurt you.” In countless religions, cultures, and belief systems ranging from Judaism to Humanism, people are urged to think of others in their everyday lives, to consider their concerns when acting. Even academic disciplines like economics and sociology teach their students that acting with civility can help ease the tensions of the market and the community.
Apparently, there are several people at McDaniel College that missed that memo. Despite the pervasive exhortations to treat those around you with some measure of basic decency, McDaniel students felt free to specifically name dozens of other members of the McDaniel College community on a Green Terror meme created by senior Mike Monaco on Tuesday, April 5. What started as a way to make some inside jokes about McDaniel that others on campus would understand and enjoy quickly devolved into a quagmire of cyberbullying, sexism, and stereotyping.
“Meet awesome people . . . on a terrible campus,” the first meme read.
“Why do you still go here? No one likes you, you fat little annoying piece of shit. Consider this internet bullying,” read one posted only a day later aimed at a specific member of this campus who will here remain nameless. (Those on the Internet might lack a sense of ethics, but this author at least still considers himself a decent human being.)
“I started the Green Terror meme as a means to make a few jokes about the more silly aspects of going to a small liberal arts college. Honestly, I only saw it going as far as maybe 30 or so entries and just sort of dying,” said Monaco in an interview with the Free Press. The idea that there might be cyberbullying, Monaco recounts, “was a possibility that I honestly hadn’t considered, since I’ve never seen something like this happen before. I was pretty surprised, to be perfectly honest.”
Why did this happen? How could this happen? What are we going to do about it?
Those are the first thoughts that popped into my mind when I first read that meme and others like it, and they most likely popped into the minds of other innocent bystanders on campus as well. What had begun as an opportunity to have some fun and share something with other students at McDaniel had transformed into a nightmare. The memes had been posted with total anonymity, their creators completely safe from reprisal. Anyone targeted by one would have no idea which fellow student they walked past in Glar, sat next to in class, or listened to playing guitar in the Quad wrote the incredibly hurtful words. Does this really represent the campus we live on? Those in the administration would disagree.
“We strive to provide a community that is welcoming and inclusive of all its members,” read a recent statement from the President’s Council released to the student body via email. “Websites such as “quickmeme” cause hurtful and divisive sentiments creating a hostile environment contrary to the First Principles of McDaniel College; and most specifically the commitment that our students will be placed at the center of a humane environment.”
In a recent interview, Beth Gerl, Vice President and Dean of Student Affairs, agreed that the meme did not represent the campus she worked on.
“I would not be here if that were the case,” Gerl declared. “This is a campus community made up of incredible people doing extraordinary things.”
When the Philosophy Club held a Soapbox the Friday after the meme’s creation, few there were as surprised by their fellow students as Monaco or the administration.
“One of the most disappointing things about this . . . is how incredibly inevitable it was that it devolved within a day,” said senior Lucas Sperber.
“I’m not surprised at all about the immaturity,” senior Jake Friedman echoed.
“It’s probably because there is no way to punish these kids and it’s totally anonymous,” Dan Lamond, sophomore, said later. “It’s a really easy forum for people who don’t know where else to say how they feel.”
But to those at the Soapbox that day, cyberbullying on a scale that encompassed McDaniel students, administration officials, and on-campus groups wasn’t the most pressing issue. In the words of several students that attended the Soapbox, the name-dropping found on the Green Terror meme was the just the work “of a few assholes” empowered by anonymity to spread their hateful sentiments.
What was clear from the comments made at the Soapbox was that it shouldn’t be paid attention to. What should be paid attention to were the scores of memes complaining about the college, administrative offices, and campus facilities.
“The problem is we’re not being heard,” said Jake Friedman.
“There’s no real forum for us to complain so we make retarded internet cartoons,” Lucas Sperber concurred.
Since stepping into office this year, Dr. Roger Casey has widely publicizing his “open door policy” that allows McDaniel students ready access to the head of the college (by appointment). But this is apparently not enough for some.
“An open door isn’t necessarily a communication channel and it should be easier for us to go to the administration,” said sophomore Noah Patton. “There’s an aura of untouchableness with the administration” that keeps any student from approaching them.
“They [the administration] should be the ones interested in coming to us and listening to our concerns,” Jake Friedman said.
Even the recent improvements made to the campus (the Dining Hall renovations, purchase of new gaming equipment for the Game Room, the construction of lights around the football field, and Casey’s announced plan to build a coffee shop in Hoover Library) came under fire.
“It’s distracting from the real problem that McDaniel does not have a unifying culture,” said senior Omar Brown. Maybe, Brown went on, if the administration had actually worked to address student concerns, it might have created a united student body unwilling to lash out at each other on the Green Terror meme.
This suggestion seemed unbelievable to the administration officials there.
“If the entire campus feels like this, why don’t you make an effort, why don’t you go to a meeting?” asked Mike Robbins, Director of Residence Life.
Robbins then gave an account of his efforts to make students aware that they needed to turn in their housing deposits before the start of Spring Break. A notification was sent out to parents, a banner was hung over the staircase in Decker College Center, several emails and two weeks worth of campus announcements were sent, and still 85 students failed to turn it in on time, even after being given an extra week to do so.
“I don’t know how to get through to you,” Robbins concluded.
Casey voiced similar concerns in a recent interview.
“I have heard many concerns expressed about technology issues, so we created at noon on Tuesday a new venue in the Forum—the 411—and posted signs and info all over campus for people to come and discuss their concerns,” Casey recounted, “It was a good session, but I guess less than 25 students were there. Where were all the complainers?”
“Communication is two-way and involves a responsibility for all parties to read what’s out there and to listen,” Casey concluded. “For 90% of the things various constituencies at the College tell me they don’t know about, I can point to an e-mail, web posting, sign, meeting at which the very issue has been covered” and “I’ll offer up any number of changes that have been enacted as a result of e-mails, Facebook messages, and face-to-face conversations I’ve held with students.”
What was even more unbelievable to those officials was that focus had been so drastically diverted from cyberbullying.
“What I was most bothered by . . . were some hurtful, mean, vicious comments students were making about one another . . . what does that say about the community we’re a part of . . . we’re part of a community that says ‘that’s okay’ and for me that’s not okay,” said Elizabeth Towle, Associate Dean of Student Affairs. “Why aren’t students up in arms about these comments? Why aren’t they pissed off?”
For Dean Towle, it was important that students use this opportunity to speak out against the hurt that had been caused by the meme, a sentiment echoed in Dean Gerl’s interview.
“My real concerns are the students that are going after each other and how we can create a safe community here,” Gerl said. “It is so sad and so unacceptable that people could turn and act that way with each other.”
But, regardless of what everyone believed should be the focus of discussions revolving around the Green Terror meme, all that spoke thought it should end.
“I’m sick of it,” said Jake Friedman. “I think it needs to die.”
How that is to happen, however, is still a matter for debate. Some have suggested simply ignoring it all together. In the President’s Council’s official statement, this suggestion was given the full force and support of the college administration.
“We ask that our campus community come together and express to one another in response to these message, ‘Not on our Campus,’” the statement read. “The site will only continue to exist if patrons use it to post comments, so we would encourage all members of the McDaniel family to avoid the site completely and focus on the positive aspects of campus life as the end of the semester draws near.”
“My advice to everyone,” Casey echoed in his interview with the Free Press, “just quit looking at the site. When you do, these self-loathing cowards posting this crap will quit feeling they have power.”
The possibility of that, unfortunately, seems an ever dimmer prospect as students continue to post memes every day that insult specific members of the McDaniel College community. Last week there were 40 pages. This week there are 80. Next week, who knows?
Others have taken an entirely different approach. Several unknown students have banded together to post pages and pages of blank memes, memes railing against cyberbullying, memes with Shakespeare quotes, and even memes that read, “This meme is dead.” Monaco himself created a supplement meme entitled “Scumbag Terror” criticizing the direction his original creation had taken. So far, it has very few entries.
“Name dropping and talking shit,” one read, “because we’re too lame to do it in person.”
Some students have embraced the memes that target them, posting about them on Facebook and making them their profile pictures (a sort of “screw you” to the culprit).
Removing the meme entirely is a near impossibility. McDaniel’s control over the website hosting the meme is minimal. As Mike Robbins recounted during his visit to the Philosophy Club Soapbox, McDaniel may be able to force the site to remove the meme as an unauthorized use of a college logo (a possibility discounted by Gerl in her interview, as the Green Terror design is only in informal use by ROTC). The creator’s control is similarly limited.
“I am not capable of taking the meme down,” Monaco said in his interview, “but even if I were, that wouldn’t address the larger issues. The issue is not that people on our campus are posting personal, sexist, homophobic, etc. things on this particular site, the issue is that our campus has this attitude at all. Removing the meme wouldn’t do anything to make people behave in less shocking ways, it would just hide it. It’s a symptom, not a problem.”
For the time being, those in the administration are working to ensure that anyone on campus that feels targeted by negative memes have their concerns addressed.
“I don’t want anybody on this campus to feel like they’re alone,” Gerl stated. “I’ve got staff looking after people that were named and reaching out to them.”
In the President’s Council’s official statement, students were urged to act likewise.
“If you know someone who is hurt or feeling isolated from campus because of these messages,” it read, “please encourage them to reach out to the counselors at the Wellness Center, members of the Residence Life staff, or the staff and faculty members with whom they are most connected.”
Those of us at the Free Press would like to echo that plea. If you know anyone that has been affected by these memes or any other instances of cyberbullying (or have been affected yourself) please know that there are people on this campus willing and ready to help you. You can reach the Wellness Center to arrange an appointment with a professional counselor by phone at 410-857-2243.