September 8, 2020

ROSENBAND | Public Shaming: Mourning Cornell in Real Time

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I’m a junior now, but the room key to my Collegetown apartment still hangs from the distinguishable lanyard I received when I moved into Dickson Hall as a freshman. If you were smart, you probably discarded it right when you got it, trusting that your amateur status went in the bin with it.

Maybe it has stayed with me more as a matter of convenience, but I continue to cling on to that bright-red rope that pulls me right back into the heart of freshman year as a souvenir from a past life — a time when I felt as if I existed in the cross-section between 22 Jump Street and Pitch Perfect. I expected Cornell to change me in a humongous, colossal, monumental, *insert superlative* way, and although it probably has, this mid-pandemic existence forces me to not only mourn the life I lived, but mourn the place I hold dearest even as I’m walking its campus.

Even if you’re technically a senior, this year we all start over as freshmen: Overwhelmed, paying too much attention to the little details, fearful of not meeting new people and just generally confused at how this is all going to work. While I might be using Google Maps less than I did two years ago, a lot of this place is completely unrecognizable to me now.

It shouldn’t be surprising that everything has changed, I guess. I think the bigger challenge is accepting that certain aspects might never return. What I didn’t expect, though, is how much our collective character has shifted in the interlude.

By now, most of us have seen the Facebook posts asking to sign a petition for the removal of a Cornell freshman. What the student did — party amidst a global pandemic, and give a half-assed apology — was no doubt wrong on all accounts and impossible to justify. And to the Ithaca community and the rest of us abiding by the rules, who will do anything to preserve our lives here, the student’s actions were deeply and intensely frustrating.

Most of us don’t know this student on a personal level, but by asking for their admission to be rescinded, we judge our peer solely by the worst thing they have ever done. Many Cornellians have swiftly taken part in a mass campaign of public shaming, as if the parade to cancellation is as ordinary and intuitive as the soup-line at Zeus.

Public shaming is not something to be enthusiastic about — even though cyberbullying with exclamation points is our President’s favorite pastime. Again, I firmly believe that there is no excuse for breaking the behavioral compact. No matter whether or not we are in Ithaca this semester, our time here is about mutual respect, which has undoubtedly been violated. Students should face consequences for their actions. But let’s not forget that we exist in a universe where a CUPD officer can catch minors drinking and the minors’ lives will resume as normal. Generally, this isn’t a universe where students get ostracized for breaking the rules. This a universe where people have the immense privilege to screw up. Yes, the stakes are undoubtedly higher when it comes to COVID-19. But this philosophy remains the same.

I’m in no position to decide or suggest what the specific consequences should be for violating the behavioral compact, but I do know that demonization is a painful process that always works both ways. And, despite the recklessness of their actions, we hurt ourselves when we try to hurt others. While some people who signed the petition might not have advocated for the student’s expulsion, there was little to distinguish what they were actually advocating for other than the student’s destruction. There is a significant difference between trying to educate someone for their wrongdoings and trying to shatter their life.

I respect whatever disciplinary action the administration gives the student. What I take issue with is how over 4,000 students — enough to fill North Campus — eagerly banded together to publicly disparage one of their own. Various students have been reported for partying, but only one has received bullying on such an extreme and singular level.

Maybe this enthusiasm towards public shaming has always existed at Cornell. But the magnitude of it feels very unfamiliar, and I mourn the Cornell where students tried to make each other better rather than bash one another, despite their misdoings. If we all return as freshmen this year, let’s bring back the kind of optimism only freshmen have.

Odeya Rosenband is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. Passionfruit runs every other Tuesday this semester.