Opinion: Facebook page “U of T Confessions” fails students who need its support
This article directly quotes misogynistic, racist and transphobic posts for the purpose of denouncing them.
The U of T Confessions (not to be confused with UofT Confessions) Facebook page doesn’t have much inthe way of a mission statement. Its long description goes: “Have a confession to make? Send us your most funny, embarrassing, truthful, inspiring, and straight out entertaining anonymous confessions here!” What the Guy Fawkes-themed page lacks in a mandate, however, it makes up for in reach.
The page has over 10,000 followers, a group which includes a significant number of public student figures. The page allows students to submit confessions to a third party website.
Confessions are then posted anonymously as statuses by the Facebook page. Having at least twice successfully posted to the page, I can testify that it does function at least somewhat efficiently despite the high number of confessions that can come in on any given day. According to the page’s administrators, the number of confessions tends to range from 75 to 200 or more per day, with higher post densities on school days.
That’s perhaps where the good news ends. When I first heard of U of T Confessions, I expected it to be a source of public therapy; an outlet for students stressed out and left lonely on their campus. When I reached out to the page’s creators, I was presented with a similar vision. “We wanted to give students a place to share their deepest darkest secrets as an emotional release,” a page administrator explained.
“[U of T Confessions] eventually became something more where people could find others like themselves and show that they aren’t as alone as they think.”
Unfortunately, the page is not known as a bastion of sensitive, emotional outpours. While you may see a post abouthow stressful U of T is, you’re equally likely to see posts based around toilet and sex “humor” at best and transphobia and Islamophobia at worst. The administrator I interviewed was a bit elusive on this topic, but did say that “the ‘vision’ [for the page] changed while at the same time it didn’t.”
When asked whether the page had a hate speech policy, I was assured by the administrator that “overly deroga-tory hate speech is not allowed” and that posts that are repeatedly complained about are also taken down. Despite this supposed policy, some pretty blatantly offensive posts slip through the cracks, so to speak. I was reminded of this when on July 13 a confession was posted that read, “Liberals claim to love science, yet they believe thereare like 6 genders. Lol k.”
On June 9, an almost equally transphobic (and logic-lacking) post asked, “why are people so quick to call ‘transphobia’ over people calling caitlyn jenner bruce? Relax people.”
Perhaps the reason that confessions like these make it onto the page has something to do with how the page’s administration thinks about hate speech. Confession submissions are supposedly rejected “all the time ... when [they are] ... obvious troll post[s] meant to rile people up.” The admin added, “I know some people think we already allow troll posts, but those could still pass as someone completely ignorant posting them, so we don’t discriminate in that regard.”
In other words, it seems confessions are accepted to the page so long as they are not written with malicious intent. Thus, while bigots motivated by pure sadism may be blocked, LGBT-phobes who feel they are doing God’s work (or Islamophobes who feel they are doing Sam Harris’s work) seem to have good access to the page.
Also problematic are the pages numerous sexual and “romantic” confessions. While some, like confessor #1700’s call for a blow up Olaf from Frozen “to do stuff with,” may just be a case of TMI, other confessions veer in the direction of racism and sexism. A confessor from December 20, for instance, asked “if it’s ok to say ‘f**k her right in the pussy!’”
While there are multiple confessions that make problematic race/gender-essentialist call-outs, for partners and friends of certain racial backgrounds, confession #21641 is perhaps one of the worst. The confessor describes himself as a white guy with a “craving for a pretty Asian girlfriend” because “once she loves someone, she will love that person forever.”
I would further argue, however, that what’s most alarming about the confessions are not their most extreme iterations, but their more moderate cousins. While outright hateful posts, as far as I’ve noticed, are at least not particularly common, posts making fun of equity politics are. For example, confessor #21737 exclaims, “I am tired about hearing about Aboriginal entitlements,” going on to say that colonialism is not right, but that it’s not the responsibility of contemporary settlers to care about it.” A July 31 confessor somehow felt the need to complain that “Calling someone a hetero is ok[,but c]alling someone a homo gets [you] castrated by the liberal community.” A March 12 confessor denounced then-UTSU President Yolen Bollo-Kamara for seeing that “the ‘black rights’ agenda be catapulted to the forefront of all pressing issues on campus.”
In addition to being rife with anti-equity comments, U of T Confessions seems to be full of conservative comments in general. While Toronto may have a reputation as a Liberal-NDP city (and Toronto youth are also generally seen as left-leaning), confessions such as #21620, which denounces progressive taxation as unfair against the rich, do not feel out of place on the page.
During the 2015 CUPE teaching assistant strike, public support amongst students for their TAs seemed relatively high, as it was hard for students to criticize TAs when they are paid below the poverty line and U of T was unwilling to bargain with them. The U of T Confessions page, by comparison, was rife with anti-TA comments. Confessor #21840 wrote of the TAs’ recent unsatisfactory arbitration settlement, saying, “revenge is a dish best served below the poverty line.” A March 12 confessor said, “TAs should[n’t] be f*****g paid at all.” The conclusion I drew from this trend was that the anonymity of the page allowed students to denounce TAs in ways they wouldn’t feel morally comfortable doing in public.
Perhaps one of the darkest internal descriptions of right-wing ideology is Margaret Thatcher’s aphorism that “there is no such thing as society.” With that thought in mind, it’s possible to see right-wing politics as even more dominant on the page. Rather than using the page to express frustration with U of T or empathy for the struggles of others, some posters use the page to put their “less successful” peers down.
A March 16 confessor belittled U of T’s Scarborough and Mississauga campus-
es, writing, “Yes, I’m saying they are not equal. Deal with it.” A July 31 confessor wrote, “if you chose a major that... is unlikely to get you a good job and you don’t get a good job don’t blame capitalism, ... patriarchy ... [or] Harper, blame yourself peace.”
Ultimately, U of T Confessions is an illustration of the limits of individualistic, liberal free speech politics. The page was seemingly created to serve a therapeutic purpose, and indeed for individual confessors it can perhaps provide some catharsis. For those reading the confessions, however, at times the page is the opposite of therapeutic.
How can an Arts & Science student find therapeutic relief from the pressure of their studies if the service that supposedly provides that relief posts statuses calling them lazy? How can students who are victims of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism and the economic class system seek refuge in a page that regularly trivializes their struggles? Why should students struggling with U of T’s culture of loneliness have to deal with the taunts of (intentional or unintentional) Thatcherite individualism?
Free speech may be a right, but having a collectively-used Facebook page broadcast your incendiary ideas is not. U of T Confessions thus has a decision to make. It can be a zone of near-absolute free speech, or it can be a therapeutic space for U of T students struggling with weed-out courses, debt, etc. Until the team behind the page is ready to recognize that reality, I would suggest that U of T students look for emotional relief elsewhere.