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Sunday, March 3, 2024

‘Doxxing truck’ is a reminder of the importance of empathy and civil disagreement 

Last month, something reprehensible happened at CU Boulder: A “doxxing truck” arrived on campus displaying images and names of the university’s Ethnic Studies Department faculty under the headline “Boulder’s Leading Antisemites.” 

The doxxing truck campaign, which is run by the conservative Accuracy in Media group, has sent trucks to universities around the country since October, when, in the wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack in Israel, student groups and faculty organizations at some universities, including CU Boulder, released statements in support of Palestine. 

At other schools, Accuracy in Media has linked to a database of students and professors who have allegedly “espoused hateful, antisemitic beliefs on college campuses and beyond,” urging those named to be blacklisted from jobs.

The campaign’s stop in Boulder came after CU’s Ethnic Studies Department released a statement in October showing its support for Palestinians during the ongoing Israel-Hamas conflict. The statement was later retracted and replaced due to concerns about its accuracy. 

The problems with the doxxing truck and these sorts of efforts to chill free expression and stifle difficult conversations are myriad. Not only is it disgraceful to attempt to name and shame political opponents into silence, but the group behind the truck apparently could not even be bothered to see if those it was “doxxing” had signed the department’s statement. Such a careless and toxic political stunt has no place in Boulder. 

(Doxxing is a form of online harassment where an individual’s identity, address or other personal details are publicly disclosed. The Camera is not publishing the names of those who appeared on the truck.)

The original statement published by the Ethnic Studies Department was problematic in the eyes of many in our community. It was described as “inaccurate” and “anti-Semitic.” At the time, Yisroel Wilhelm, CU Boulder’s Chabad Rabbi, said people saw the statement as a personal attack on the Jewish community. There was a “full-blown mental-health crisis” for Jewish students on campus, Wilhelm said, and Jewish faculty were also fearful after seeing the message spread online.

Our goal here is not to relitigate the contents of those statements. Hate speech and antisemitism are real, and they are extremely damaging. We must always strive to ensure that hate has no place in our politics or on our campuses or in our communities.

But at the same time, we must all be willing and prepared to accept the fact that not everyone agrees with us — even on extremely emotional issues — and that disagreement in itself is not hate. We cannot confront challenges to our beliefs or ideas that make us uncomfortable by simply labeling it hate speech. 

But this is exactly what a doxxing truck is designed to do. Outing professors and students in this manner is an effort to simplify an extremely complex and emotional conversation into a false binary: You’re either with us, or you’re against us. 

Humans have always struggled to communicate on emotional topics. And politics have always been capable of driving a wedge between people. But it feels safe to say that the rise of social media and the creation of information bubbles that isolate us from dissenting views has slowly suffocated our ability to empathize with differing perspectives. 

On top of that, the explosion of actual misinformation on social media means that many of us lack a shared set of facts upon which to build our perceptions of reality. So, when we do eventually interact with someone we disagree with, we lack a shared factual foundation to even argue on. 

Doxxing, at its core, is an effort to shame and silence and marginalize. It is a form of ad hominem attack — a rhetorical technique where someone attacks a speaker personally instead of attempting to use logic to refute their argument. 

Doxxing trucks, then, are simply physical manifestations of all of our worst internet-born tendencies. Their very existence is meant only to stoke division and “own” the other side. And their presence on college campuses is especially insidious, as the classroom is meant to be the place where young adults learn how to critically engage with the world. Where their ideas can be safely challenged, and where they can learn how to respectfully challenge the ideas of others. 

The Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on innocent Israelis was devastating. And Israel’s retaliatory invasion has also been devastating. The humanitarian aid crisis in Gaza is devastating. The fear instilled by an act of terrorism that comes to color the vision of daily life is devastating. The antisemitism and anti-Muslim hate that have been born of the conflict are devastating. 

War — and all the atrocities that come with it — is devastating. 

To recognize this devastation is not a justification for anyone’s actions. Nor is it meant to absolve any perpetrators of guilt. The complexities of this conflict are far beyond the scope of our expertise as Boulder journalists. We do not know how to end the violence or how to dispel a terrorist organization (or ideology). But we do know that naming and shaming those in our community with whom we disagree is not going to solve anything. 

And we know that we all have a capacity for empathy that can stretch beyond that which we are familiar with — to the other side of the aisle or the border or the river — and that empathy is, most often, necessary for the reconciliation of conflict. 

Accuracy in Media, the group behind the truck, is not local. Their aim is clearly to sow division and score political points against their perceived enemies in academia. Our Boulder community can and should rise above this. When divisions appear on campus or in our community, when tempers flare and when mutual understanding seems impossible, we should step up and seek to engage in a good-faith effort to listen and respond with empathy and compassion and with the intent to learn and grow — together. 

It seems almost painfully naive to say that we are never going to all agree. But we simply aren’t. What we can do, though, is learn how to disagree with civility and in such a way that creates a space where we can find common ground. 

Anyone affiliated with CU Boulder who feels they are the target of discrimination or harassment can reach out to the Office of Victim Assistance at colorado.edu/ova for support. For a full list of resources and information available to students, faculty and staff, visit CU Boulder’s Israel-Hamas resource page at colorado.edu/today/2023/10/10/israel-hamas-war-campus-resources-insights-and-more#block-section-1449.

— Gary Garrison for the Editorial Board

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