Graffiti on campus shuts down discourse

About two weeks ago, the words “War isn’t real, Apathy is freedom, Silence is strength” began to appear on buildings across campus, written in red paint. On February 4, the same words were posted anonymously on SayAnything. Unsurprisingly, both of these acts garnered a number of comments and reactionary posts on SayAnything as well as several heated real-world conversations with an equally unsurprising discrepancy in opinion among Vassar students. While several of the students have deemed the graffiti as an act of petty, potentially offensive vandalism, many others are either entirely apathetic to the matter or supportive of the graffiti author’s message. I’ve appreciated the discussions thus far on the topic and hope to add my own voice to the debate.

When I first saw the graffiti on my way to class, I was upset, more so by the act of vandalism itself than by its content. As I began to consider the graffiti’s message, however, I quickly became just as unsettled by the meaning of the words. And while I am fully aware that it’s responses such as this that the author desired in the first place—that the vandalism was probably carried out to elicit a reaction from the student body—that is no reason to keep silent on this matter. When discourse shuts down; when we feel compelled to keep our mouths shut because of the words crudely painted on the wall by an anonymous “V for Vendetta” fan; when communication takes a passenger seat to comfort and ease, then we cease to be a useful society.

It is communication and discourse that lie at the heart of this matter. On a very basic level, the author of these words must have desired to have his or her message read by the student body at large and therefore went about vandalizing buildings as a means of mass communication. Let’s momentarily ignore the fact that the words he or she chose to communicate were largely thoughtless and uninspiring and focus instead on the primary failure of the author: he or she chose vandalism over a peaceful means of communication. It’s impossible, for those who have read “1984,” to miss the similarities between this graffiti and the slogans found on the wall of the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel. Which author will be more successful in the long run, do you think? The one who placed his message into a well-crafted novel, or the one who vandalized buildings? Momentary shock and rage are never going to be a worthy competitor to intelligible, consumable discourse. I don’t care if the graffiti author is being ironic or serious in his or her message, and I would not care if these words happened to be the most important things to be written in the past one hundred years (they aren’t), because he or she chose to go about it through hurtful vandalism rather than peaceful discourse.

The graffiti author’s message has made life difficult for members of the Vassar community in more than one way. Vassar employees have had to waste time washing paint off of walls, administrative workers have had to waste time documenting and investigating the issue, and some Vassar students have been emotionally unsettled by the vandalism and its message. If it was the author’s desire to arouse anger and fear, or to simply make people’s lives harder, congratulations: you are a schoolyard bully.

What saddens me further about this entire issue is that the author also posted to SayAnything, but did not consider that a large enough platform for his or her message. For one thing, he or she must have thought very highly of his or her unoriginal three sentences to consider them worthy of vandalism. But what’s almost sadder, in my opinion, is that this also suggests a lack of faith in peaceful communication platforms like SayAnything. SayAnything has its issues, of course, but it is largely a tool for good. Through SayAnything, questions concerning campus life and administrative logistics are frequently raised and answered; concerns about campus climate are discussed (rarely resolved, but at least discussed); people reach out to others for emotional support, and often receive it; support groups for issues such as eating disorders are organized; and people just generally feel comfortable sharing thoughts, feelings, what-have-you. Most importantly, their messages are all introduced through peaceful, voluntary discourse rather than egotistical vandalism. What makes the graffiti author’s message more important than organizing a support group? In what way is “Apathy is freedom” a more pressing topic to discuss than a student’s difficulty in transitioning back to campus life after JYA? And even if it is more pressing (in the author’s opinion), should it not be left to the reader to decide what is and is not important for him or her?

Lastly, I would like to briefly take a look at what has been the main topic of discussion on this issue: the content of the graffiti: “War isn’t real, Apathy is freedom, Silence is strength.” If these words are meant to be taken at face value, which I doubt, then of course these are the opinions of the author and up for personal interpretation and consideration. Personally, I disagree with these phrases. War is quite real and it is offensive and possibly hurtful to claim that it isn’t, especially for those Vassar students from areas of the world hurt by war or with loved ones serving in an army. And as you can probably guess from my fixation on communication and discourse, I do not think apathy or silence are constructive solutions to any problem; they are instead quick and selfish solutions to short-term conflicts.

However, a number of students, myself included, believe instead that these words are meant to be taken ironically, and that the author is urging us to reconsider how disconnected to the world outside of Vassar we all are. If that is so, I think it’s a message with some merit, but through its wording it is still a potentially offensive message to some students, and, more importantly, it was still forced upon us by vandalism. When you disrespect our environment and our will to choose what we consume as readers, you lose our respect and our long-term understanding of your message. You generate a few days more discussion in exchange for making people’s lives more unpleasant—quite the selfish trade-off.

 

—Jean-Luc Bouchard ‘14 is an English major. He is Humor and Satire Editor for The Miscellany News.

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