What do Bill Ayers and gossip targets on Wesleyan’s Anonymous Confession Board have in common? More than you might imagine.
First, a recap of Bill Ayers and the controversy surrounding him. Ayers co-founded the 1970s radical political protest group the Weather Underground which among other acts of extremism, set off explosions in the Pentagon and the U.S. Capitol. Ayers has since rejoined mainstream society and now serves as a Distinguished Professor of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. During the 2008 U.S. presidential election, Barack Obama’s political opponents did their best to make something out of the fact that Obama and the Ayers had served on two non-profit boards together and that Obama once attended a political gathering in (gasp) Ayers’ living room. The Republicans hoped to prove that by having any contact with the once-radical, Obama was, as Sarah Palin put it, “palling around with terrorists.”
Truthfully, I’m not terribly interested in the G.O.P.’s unsuccessful guilt-by-association strategy or with Ayers’ involvement in setting off explosives over three decades ago. What intrigues me is the way Ayers dealt with the onslaught of media attention he’s received in recent months. Most notably, Ayers waited until after Obama won the election to offer a response to the smears against him.
In the center of any controversy, sloppy, knee-jerk reactions simply draw more attention to the situation and invite more criticism. Bill Ayers recognized this basic truth in the midst of a barrage attacks and acted accordingly. By letting the situation simmer down on its own, Ayers helped both his public image and the Obama campaign.
Wesleyan’s Anonymous Confession Board came to mind after reading “The Real Bill Ayers,” the eponymously titled New York Times Op-Ed piece Ayers wrote in his defense after the election. In it, Ayers explains how the pre-election excitement of the mainstream news media and the blogosphere presented “no viable path to a rational discussion” of the public attacks against him. Truthfully, the flurry of posts on Wesleyan’s anonymous online forum offers no such path either.
Besides the confessions, vents and harmless musings found on the ACB, the site serves as a forum where students regularly and anonymously attack their peers for, among other things, their opinions, appearances, alleged personality flaws and questionable sexualities. While well-meaning friends of ACB victims often try to come to the virtual rescue by making retaliatory posts, their attempts at defending their peers often only add fuel to anonymous attacks.
Rather than making the situation worse, students harassed via ACB might take a tip from Bill Ayers and practice a little self-restraint. Admittedly, Ayers certainly didn’t stay quiet forever, as his Op-Ed piece and appearances on Good Morning America, NPR’s Fresh Air and in last weeks’ New York Times Magazine all demonstrate. While Ayers eventually got to publicly defend himself, victims of anonymous Internet harassment don’t typically have this luxury. Still, Ayers serves as useful example in how to respond to public attacks. Generally speaking, targets of ACB gossip should consider following the lead of a former Weatherman by waiting out the storm.