Back in the 1970s, when I was leaving for college, my mother gave me a piece of advice: “Don’t sign anything.” Her skepticism was forged in the 1950s, when petitions that public figures had signed as students, and organizations they had belonged to, had sometimes destroyed their lives. In college, however, I discovered the thrill of signing a political document. It was how I could take a stand. It signaled my desire to join a network of like-minded thinkers.
Now that petitions and letters of various kinds arrive regularly by email, Facebook, and Twitter, my mother’s voice is back in my ear: Is this something I really believe in? Enough to stand up for it a week, a year, five years from now? If it became public — when it becomes public — could I defend what this document says?
This is on my mind because of a now-notorious letter, signed by more than 50 prominent academics, written in support of the New York University professor Avital Ronell. The document is a classic case of professors inserting themselves into a controversy about which they have, at best, partial knowledge. This tendency may be an extension of what academics often do: use our expert knowledge to understand and resolve problems. Forgetting that we may not always have the information necessary to have an informed opinion may be an unwanted effect of life online, where we are constantly solicited for our views on matters great and small.
Either way, the Ronell letter is a perfect example of how taking a stand on the internet can transform a problem into a catastrophe.