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Sunday, June 16, 2024
The Observer

Practice taking responsibility for your speech

I have said things I regretted more times than I would like to remember. I have also refrained from saying what I have thought at times because I feared embarrassment or being misunderstood, or I was just unwilling to accept responsibility for my words. Being responsible for what I say is burdensome.

The Twitter account ND Crushes (@UNDCrushes) relieves people of this burden: it allows contributors to anonymously fawn over people. A good portion of the expressions is harmless “crushing," but much of it is explicitly sexual. None of the acts of communication request reciprocation because the anonymity ensures that “no one” is speaking.

ND Crushes is thus a vehicle for irresponsible speech: speech for which no one is personally responsible. It fosters a culture in which personal expressions are severed from the persons who express them. Whereas most people in the course of actual conversations will negotiate the burdensome responsibility for speech with caution, courageousness or even indirect personal speech, ND Crushes offers an easy out: direct de-personalized speech. By not naming oneself the user can name or describe anyone he or she wants and apparently say anything he or she wants about that person.

So here’s my question: Why does ND Crushes exist? Ostensibly, it is to “anonymously confess your University of Notre Dame crushes that you always wanted to get off your chest.” That defines its function more than its reason for being. Some might claim it allows you to say what you really think without risk of rejection. It might even be a coy means of piquing another person’s romantic curiosity, or it might be regarded as meaningless and playful jabbering that is better to release through social media than in face-to-face interactions. I maintain that ND Crushes exists as a symptom and incubator of the desire to exercise freedom through speech without the necessary responsibility one assumes in speaking freely. You get to express yourself without hazarding anything of yourself.

Certainly, ND Crushes is not one of a kind. Other accounts like this exist on Twitter or in other forms across the social media dreamscape. Yik Yak is a network of little local spheres of de-personalized speech that create alternative subcultures only accessible to those who peek through the app. Those who don’t inquire through Yik Yak or grab the ND Crushes handle remain ignorant of the other planes of thought and interpretation that pertain to the people and social settings with which they engage. Aside from the unavoidable messiness of embodied social relations with their multiple layers of meaning, this whole other script is being written by those who utilize a veiled virtual world to "get something off their chest," anonymously.

The apparent need to remove one’s identity from forthright communication is vexing. Even more troubling is the ease with which we describe or even name the objects of our affection when we are so unwilling to identify ourselves with our own self expressions. I was crestfallen to see the name of one of my former students on ND Crushes, portrayed according to someone’s perverse desire to sexually conquer her. This young woman was reduced to being a prop for some lewd act (the tweets about men are no less graphic). A nameless, faceless perpetrator publicly violated her integrity — not physically, but socially and perhaps emotionally — in 140 characters or less.

Would this nameless person ever say such things to this woman in person? Not without the risk of being slapped, which would itself be a goad for human development. More likely, social inhibitions would burden such direct speech precisely because the speaker would be personally responsible for the words. There is, in the end, a productive dimension to the inhibitions associated with the burden of responsibility: they allow space for the operation of conscience and they also present the opportunity for courage. Shortcutting that burden with virtual anonymity demeans us all. What results is disembodied chatter.

This letter is not about policing thought or speech; rather, I am advocating that we practice taking personal responsibility for our speech. This goes for those who express themselves on ND Crushes, those who follow it and whoever owns the account. For my part, I claim the views expressed here as my own at the risk of being misunderstood, disliked or disregarded. And to prove it, here’s my name: Leonard DeLorenzo. On Twitter: @leodelo2.

Leonard DeLorenzo

Associate Professional Specialist

Department of Theology and Institute for Church Life

Jan. 22

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.