September 10, 2020

LIM | We Need to Watch How We Hold Each Other Accountable During This Pandemic

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Martha Pollack made a mistake in her email insisting that the University’s reopening was not financially motivated. She vehemently defended reopening as “right” for the health of students and the community, instead of a “wrong” desire for money. To me, this denial felt more like they vindicated the accusations, instead of disproving them.

But I think the real mistake lay in framing the University’s decisions regarding the pandemic in moral terms, because this activates the blame-game university administrations nationwide and their students are playing with each other, and, uniquely, that Cornell’s students are playing with themselves. A Sun guest columnist identified how this phenomenon, too, can be attributed to the administration’s rhetoric, which has come to make blame our main mechanism to ensure compliance. We have come to believe that accusing our peers of doing wrong will convince them to behave more right. Similarly, we believe that holding the administration accountable for their wrong decisions will pressure them to make the right next steps.

Is this working? In other words — who cares?

I don’t think the people I hear gathering in questionably-sized groups are the same ones who diligently read every email the administration sends. And I think the people who do are inevitably absorbing a lot of extremely emotional language whose emotiveness encourages subjective interpretations of all we observe. We wind up being more condemning of strangers than friends, and more suspicious of certain demographics. Specifically, as per the University’s recent suggestion, student athletes. But prior to this, many of us were already speculating on our meme page that fraternities were to blame.

Suspicion of this form is insidious in ways more immediately obvious applied to identity groups less socially acceptable to suspect. Being an Asian person in this pandemic, notably, has not been fun. Yet all the slurs and side-glances I’ve received pointed me toward how ridiculously extrapolative my own assessments of who to sit next to on the bus were. How introverted (aka: less socially-connected) did they seem? How white-collar (aka: likely to be working from home)? How young (aka: reckless)? All this might pattern statistically, but so broad a rule likely doesn’t hold on an individual level, which is more likely ruled by chance.

Suggesting that the virus spreads through chance and probability, with such impartial and impersonal connotations, feels outrageous in a country whose president prioritized the economy over the lives of millions. It makes sense that horrors of this scale have brought about a culture of blame and responsibility. But I also think this has been carried into our campus in ways we have not sufficiently questioned.

As much as our University administration’s intentions are dubious and their planning imperfect, I also think that this has yet to reach a level of negligence that would overdetermine the movement of chance. The recent Jessica Zhang ‘24 controversy also seems clear proof in our minds that our fellow Cornellians cannot be trusted – but what if there was an alternative response? One that believed our peers could agree that our assessment of risk might be more accurate than theirs, and would attempt to knock on their door before calling the cops?

Additionally – and I figure this might be less popular to suggest – while morality is binary, non-compliance is a scale across which chance sometimes acts impartially. This gamut ranges from sardine-packed parties to leaving our noses unmasked for a little while. In this sense I’m not sure every critic has been absolutely blameless or risk-free themselves. Behavior that increases the probability of transmission should never be condoned, but I don’t see why it needs to be called out from a moral high ground.

I think it’s worth questioning what drives the accountability mechanisms we’re relying on and whether what derives from them is worth it. There’s been a longstanding culture of moralization and condemnation on our campus that not everybody shares, but very few have softly spoken up against. This pandemic, with its heightened stakes, is likely to entrench this culture in ways that further stunt our ability to listen to or converse with those we deem “wrong.”

All of this confuses me because moralizing is not what’s kept transmission rates low in more successful societies — by and large, impersonal law is. The same system of law that American media outlets once criticized as infringing upon “democracy” has been guiding my country, Singapore, through stages of infection with optimistic results. Consequently, I had assumed that, absent a culture of formal authority, blame and moralization have been activated to become a sort of internal authority governing behavior. Yet Cornell has seen no shortage of efforts from the top, and we’ve been condemning our peers long before it was in the administration’s interest.

Moralizing encourages us to distrust impersonal law in favor of subjective personal enforcement. The danger of forgetting that this is an extramoral pandemic, where testing negative is not a reward of “good” behavior as much as testing positive a punishment of “bad,” is a crescendoed culture of condemnation. A culture that, feeling so subjective, could someday backfire by pushing those most pressured by its heavy language to seek escape from it.


Kristi Lim is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. What the Hell Is Water runs every other Thursday this semester.