September 18, 2020

BARAN | A Case Study on Cornell Accountability and Public Shaming

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Last week a sun columnist wrote on the culture of public shaming that has crept into the Cornell community this semester. They lambasted the demonization of students who break the behavior compact and lamented “the Cornell where students tried to make each other better rather than bash one another.” Indeed, that Cornell of collaboration and smiles has seemed to vanish, replaced by one of judging eyes and distrust. There is no better epitomizer of this new Cornell than students publicly shaming other students. One of the most visible and well-known examples of this phenomenon is the Cornell Accountability Instagram page.

The account’s stated purpose is “to report people that are not social distancing/parting/endangering others … not to authorities or administration, but to the Cornell Community.” It does so by posting pictures and videos on their story or page of actions that appear to break the behavioral compact. The owners receive submissions from other students or town residents. Essentially, the account is a tool to leverage peer pressure against students who defy public health guidelines. It’s effective because of its reach. Assuming its 2000 followers are Cornell students, almost 15 percent of the undergraduate population sees its posts and stories every day. That’s not accounting for the many students who refuse to follow the account out of dislike but still regularly view its content.

Many agree that those who created the page did so with good intentions. I tend to concur. Cornell’s behavioral compact and to a lesser extent, COVID-19 health guidelines, are new and ever changing. They can be difficult to interpret and follow. Enforcement borders on impossible. Because the results of adhering to the guidelines are in the best interest of the Cornell community, any novel methods of enforcement should be considered. Some pioneering students realized this and created a system to self-monitor over social media.

However, beyond a general agreement on the goodwill behind the creation of the account, student opinion is overwhelmingly negative. Erin McCarthy ’22 sees its methods as “a prime example of what’s wrong with society today: individuals’ inability to maturely confront others about issues and have discussions in a civil manner.” Hiding behind anonymity, McCarthy claims, is not the right way to approach confrontation.

Massimo Carbone ’22 questions why such a page even exists if Cornell has already created a system for students to anonymously report infractions of guidelines.  Carbone insists that violations should be reported to the supposedly impartial authority of Cornell, rather than “a mob of biased 20 year olds on Instagram.” Doing the latter, he says, simply allows “peers to vilify and ostracize … [offenders] … under the guise of activism and accountability.” Further, Carbone avers that the ambiguity of the language in the behavioral compact leaves students vulnerable to wrongful harm if the account was to post a picture out of context or based on a misinterpreted rule.

Despite the climate of disapproval on campus, to which the account is undoubtedly attuned, the owners continue to stand their ground. “Public shaming has been seen to work,” they asserted in a short interview conducted over Instagram DMs. However, they did concede that there are limits to the tactic. “We try to stray away from smaller groups hanging out and … [focus instead on] … high impacted areas or large parties. Everything else we direct … to campus police or CCCT.”

Contrary to popular opinion, I believe that Cornell Accountability is generally a good thing. It’s to everyone’s benefit that we control this pandemic. I care about public health and enforcing guidelines; however, there’s a limit to how much I care. I’ll wear my mask in public and take precautions, but I’m not going to report anyone or otherwise work to keep my peers in check. I suspect the same is true for many other students. So I’m glad a group of students is taking initiative to enforce guidelines from a unique position of power.

When used properly, peer pressure is a much more effective enforcement tool than anything in the administration’s repertoire. It covers the holes in the university’s armor, the places they have a hard time reaching. Although there is certainly potential for temporary harm to a student’s reputation, the positives of this mode of enforcement outweigh the possible negatives. Students generally forgive and forget quickly. If anyone were to be wrongfully exposed or blamed they would suffer no repercussions from the administration.

At this point the name Jessica Zhang ’24 has probably crossed your mind. You probably don’t need an introduction to her, but if you do, here’s a link to more information. She is the reason I stop short at giving my full support to Cornell Accountability. I don’t say that because the owners of the account exposed her or wrote the petition for her expulsion. They didn’t do any of that. According to Cornell Accountability, the now-infamous video “was included in genuine news sites before … [they] got [their] hands on the video and posted it.”

However, even if Cornell Accountability didn’t participate in the creation of the horribly disproportionate reaction to Zhang’s actions, they do fully support it. When I inquired into their thoughts on the subject, they responded that what happened to Zhang was almost completely just. The only reason it wasn’t entirely right is because “ everyone in the party should’ve been crucified as much as her, but they weren’t.”

What happened to Zhang was shameful and wrong. She is a naïve, reckless 18-year-old who made some mistakes (likely while she was intoxicated). Sound familiar? There is absolutely no way anyone can convince me she deserved to be humiliated on national media outlets and branded as a corrupt and selfish individual. She did not deserve to have thousands of her peers ask for her expulsion. Cornell Accountability is a good framework for public health self-regulation, but their support of the tragedy behindZhang leaves me no choice but to distrust their judgment.

Abigail Frankel ’22 is another student critical of the Cornell Accountability Instagram. She holds that the “page’s fostering of a ‘call-out’ culture is counter-intuitive to the culture we should be trying to promote at Cornell this semester, which is one of support for all students.” Frankel suggests that instead “of solely calling out the people who are breaking rules, we should be supporting and thanking people who follow them.”

There’s something important there. Although I don’t agree completely with her (we should definitely be calling out people who are breaking rules), I do think there’s been a noticeable lack of gratitude for people who are following the rules. There are so many people doing their part, yet all we hear is judgment and censure. The call-out culture isn’t necessarily bad. But let’s start calling each other out for following the rules, not just breaking them. We need more positivity, and simply thanking others for following the rules is a good start.

Christian Baran is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at cbaran@cornellsun.com. Honestly runs alternate Fridays this semester.