Transparency. Authenticity. Reliability.
These three words have been used over and over to address problems with The Interpreter. After all, we exist as an anonymous website. However, we are students who want to see change in the policies and culture at Cedarville University. We do not want the school to be torn down, its programs to be destroyed, or its faculty or staff to be shamed. We want to see change for the better.
The purpose of this article is to defend our credibility against the plethora of criticism we have received. To do that, we will look at our mission, our motives for publication, and finally look at our reliability from historical and pragmatic perspectives.
No one can deny that Cedarville has problems. Legalism is deeply pervasive among the student body and the administration. Third-tier Christianity (i.e. so-called doctrines of personal preference) has become too much of the focus of the administration. There is a noticeable sense of moral superiority. The school has permitted abuse and mistreatment, discrimination and disrespect, censorship and ignorance to very real issues. Its dress code is too strict, its punishments too severe, and its code of conduct too vague. Such vagueness perpetuates abuse: rules that do not clearly define free speech, for example, can be interpreted by the University in favor of censorship.
With all of that said, Cedarville does have its bright spots. A recent Title IX campaign attempted to highlight real issues at Cedarville. There are generally bad college professors wherever you go, but on the whole, Cedarville’s faculty are incredibly smart, talented, and encouraging individuals. There are many students who are genuine, loving, and respectful. At best, our hope is to spark real and legitimate change at Cedarville: we have proposed amending alcohol rules and the dress code, eliminating the practice of censorship, avoiding Groupthink in decision-making, improving mental health resources, and end overt discrimination against LGBTQ+ students that is not excused by out-of-context Bible verses or religious exemption (as well as more articles to come). At worst, we hope to offer differing opinions on key issues among students to spark discussion and bring openness and change to the student culture at Cedarville.
All of this to say, our motives in creating The Interpreter are pure. We hope to see change in a university with thriving academic programs (Cedarville’s pharmacy program ranks as one of the best in the nation and its computer science program recently received national recognition, among many other excellent academic programs). However, we will not tolerate abuse or the elimination of dissent. Our mission is to be a voice of the student body and to shed light on the hidden problems at the University. We do not claim to have perfectly correct opinions, but these are our opinions. As we have mentioned repeatedly, however, our firmness of belief does not mean we are not open to conversation, disagreement, or even ‘hateful’ responses. All of these are conducive to free speech and open conversation. Free speech and open conversation are the ultimate catalysts for change.
We do not make money off of The Cedarville Interpreter. We write because we are passionate about these issues and want to see change for the better. We are inspired by those who reach out to express their appreciation for our articles and motivated by those who reach out to express their disagreement.
Perhaps the most common critique of the Cedarville Interpreter is in reference to our anonymity. Many have said that our anonymity is unethical. Some have said that opinions are more respected with a name attached, the information can be perceived as unreliable, and one follower said we cannot be trusted because the truth has already been filtered through our eyes. People often ask, “If you really believe what you’re saying, then why don’t you reveal who you are?”
Pastor David Epps, a proponent of such arguments, asked, “Who wants to read the writings of someone who refuses to own up to their opinions and will not engage in some dialogue?” The key here is that the problem lies in anonymous sources not opening themselves up to criticism, refusing to own up to what they believe, and preventing dialogue from ocurring.
In the Weekly Vista, Houston Enzymes CEO Devin Houston wrote an opinion piece arguing that writing in anonmity is a cowardly act: “The cowards in the dark have always been with us. The hidden voice in a crowd and unknown phone calls were predecessors to the anonymous online commenters and bullies of social media. Regardless of the venue, the motive is to make their target afraid of speaking out again. Because the coward cannot form an appropriate answer to an argument, he resorts to using fear as a means of control. The coward’s biggest fear is being exposed for what he is: ignorant and small of mind and character.
He continues, “The skin of a writer must be thick. There will always be those with differing opinions. Most writers welcome respectful arguments and actually look forward to a civil debate. This is why they put their names and addresses in their bylines. I have had my share of those who do not side with my views. I am always willing to reply to their arguments personally or at least acknowledge their disagreement. Some go so far as to express their differences publicly in a letter to the editor of the newspaper rather than in a private email or letter. I actually find this exhilarating, because a public discourse on any subject promotes understanding and makes newspapers more relevant.
I present these arguments exactly as they were presented to us. They are valid by nature of their existence because clearly these are legitimate concerns for several in our followership. However, I would argue that these positions do not take into account the whole picture. In short, as one of our followers said, “A system where honest opinions have to be hidden behind anonymity is flawed.” We would undoubtedly prefer not to be anonymous, but Cedarville deems our opinions and our stories too dangerous for their liking and would gladly silence our voice by any means possible. If you don’t believe me, check out our article on censorship. But to go more in depth, I’d like to take a look at two aspects of anonymity: First Ammendment rights and our personal case for anonymity.
The First Ammendment: The Federalist Papers are widely considered to be some of the most important documents in American History, in particular in regards to free speech. They argued in favor of the ratification of the Constitution in its current form. The Antifederalist papers, similarly, are key documents that favored state’s rights but opposed the ratification of the Constitution in its current form. All of those authors wrote under pseudonyms in order to prevent bias on the part of the reader so that they would not read their opinions in light of their identities or positions. Furthermore, considering the divisiveness of those topics, the authors wrote anonymously to protect themselves from threats and from censorship. Back then, the media consisted of random dudes who owned printing presses and published what people brought to them. They got to decide what was published and what was not (which relates to the idea of “filtering truth” previously mentioned), similarly to how The Interpreter accepts anonymous submissions from students for publication. Not comparing ourselves to the significance of these publications by any stretch, but the principles are the same: we write anonymously about policies and behaviors in order to prevent the perception that our authors are “just students” or “a faculty member we must agree with.”
According to the Cornell Law School’s Legal Information Institute, “After reviewing the weight of the historical evidence, it seems that the Framers understood the First Amendment to protect an author’s right to express his thoughts on political candidates or issues in an anonymous fashion.” It would appear to me that this principle applies not only to the political establishment, but to any social establishment that someone lives under (i.e. a University).
The Personal Case for Anonymity: We have been asked dozens of times, “If you have problems with Cedarville, why don’t you just leave?” Yet we would not ask the Antifederalists why they didn’t just leave the country if they had a problem with it and their ideas did not need to have a name attached to them to be a valid opinion. Again, not comparing ourselves to the significance of these publications, but the principles are the same. An environment where dissent is not tolerated is a deeply fractured one and one which will see stagnated innovation and growth. Cedarville is uniquely positioned to be a school where Christian students can learn important skills from a viewpoint that aligns with their own, but to enforce your non-Biblical standards on students is completely unacceptable. Many professors, especially in the Bible department, must teach disputable doctrines they do not agree with as if they are fact in order to keep their jobs. I know this because my professors as well as several others I have been told have made statements that they are teaching a certain doctrine as a Cedarville requirement, not because they agree with it. These professors’ livelihoods depend on Cedarville and–in a less direct way–so do ours. Going public with our identities alongside our dissenting viewpoints would risk our educational and career pursuits. If we eliminate our anonymity, we are opening ourselves up to discipline or even dismissal for our supposedly “anti-Cedarville” views.
But beyond that, publicizing our identities could threaten the viability of the Cedarville Interpeter and end in its censorship. This publication is the second of its kind at Cedarville. The first ultimately fizzled after substantial pressure and censorship from the University. The staff of that paper did not give up their principles, but are only able to make their arguments and express their opinions in less student-directed mediums. Because of this, in reference to our approach, I have to agree with an old Ugandan proverb which says, “Caution is not cowardice; even the ants march armed.”
According to Stanford, many Chinese Christians “want to tell the truth, but they want to stay [in China] too. So it’s truth without attribution. Take it or leave it. They didn’t make the rules. Persian Gulf women are forced to write under pseudonyms because they are “trapped by tradition and afraid of the social consequences. Many women writers in Persian Gulf Arab states are using pen names to air their views to the general public.”
Similarly, we want to stay at Cedarville to achieve our goals and to hopefully make an impact on the student body and the campus community. The only way for us to continue to make an impact on campus on our own personal levels and also publish The Interpreter is through “truth without attribution.” We ask only that you examine the soundness of our arguments and their legitimacy before dismissing our work because it is anonymous. Anonymity in and of itself does not decrease reliability: otherwise, we wouldn’t have half the Bible and authors such as Shakespeare, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, Mark Twain, George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), Mary Shelley, and a host of others would have had their work dismissed as inaccurate, unworthy of respect, and “filtered truth.” The problem with anonymity comes when it is used as a form of cowardice to avoid the need to construct valid arguments.
Admittedly, when it comes to accuracy and reliability, it is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. We can tell you we are accurate until our faces turn blue, but establishing ethos when discussing matters of opinion is not as easy because there are some arguments that are simply not fact-based. However, we do our best to provide as much outside research as possible as well as considering different opinions in order to demonstrate our commitment to impartiality and accuracy.
Pastor Epps, quoted earlier, said no one wants to read a source who refuses to own up to what they believe and refuse to engage in dialogue. We will gladly own up to everything we believe and certainly do so in our personal lives, but doing so through this medium would be inappropriate since it would assume everyone involved with this publication has the same viewpoint and also could endanger each of them over an opinion that is not their own. Furthermore, through our social media we engage in dialogue on a consistent basis. Epps’ concerns about anonymous reporting are concerns for us as well, and something we have and will continue to strive to guard against.
In response to Houston’s claims, I fundamentally disagree with one of his statements. He claims that for all anonymous writers, “Regardless of the venue, the motive is to make their target afraid of speaking out again. Because the coward cannot form an appropriate answer to an argument, he resorts to using fear as a means of control.”
Our publication in no way has used fear as a means of control and in fact we have worked hard to exemplify the principles he noted in the next paragraph such as welcoming differing opinions, conducting civil debate, replying to arguments, acknowledging disagreements, and accepting dissenting viewpoints to consider them for publication (which, sadly, we have yet to receive). We are diligent to construct our arguments logically and are always open to our minds being changed.
If nothing else, we can offer our commitment to all of our readers that we do not publish without extensive thought, consideration, and consultation. When we feature stories or make statements saying multiple students deal with issues, it is because those issues have been submitted to us dozens of times. We do not write an article unless that topic has been brought up a substantial number of times through our DMs, on Twitter, or on Instagram.
Hopefully as you read our posts you will see our principles of honesty and genuine care demonstrated throughout each of them and if you reach out to contact us you will have a sense of the heart behind this publication as well as our commitment to free thought and free speech. We will, however, continue to remain anonymous until we are able to have a constructive conversation with the administration without fear of reprisal for ourselves, our contributors, or any other students involved. In other words, for us to change our approach to publication, Cedarville–on a much larger and more important scale–must in turn live by the standards our critics ask of us: transparency and authenticity. A system without those principles necessitates anonymous publications that will voice differing opinions, offer action-steps for change, and protect the identities of those involved. Our anonymity gives us opportunities to talk about things that cannot be talked about anywhere else and out from underneath the thumb of the administration. But we commit to each of our readers that our accuracy will never suffer as a result of our anonymity. We will always strive for the utmost quality of journalism that is ethical, relevant, and accessible.
In previously cited article from Stanford University, they write, “New Jersey governor, William Livingston [pictured left], was at work writing anonymous articles that defended the right to publish anonymously as part of the freedom of the press. Under the pseudonym -Scipio,- Livingston wrote several articles attacking the Legislature’s failure to lower taxes, and he accused a state officer of stealing or losing state funds during the British invasion of New Jersey.” After it was demanded he give up his name, he wrote, “And pray may not a man, in a free country, convey thro’ the press his sentiments on publick grievances…without being obliged to send a certified copy of the baptismal register to prove his name.”
We will not be sending a certified copy of the baptismal register to the administration unless they begin to value the principles of transparency, authenticity, and reliability. Until that day, enjoy The Cedarville Interpreter for what it is: opinion pieces, student stories, and calls for much-needed change for a University with vast potential and widespread flaws.
William Shakespeare, who once published his controversial plays anonymously, famously wrote, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”
Whatever name our articles fall under, maybe they’re at least worth a sniff.