It was a quiet summer morning, and I was enjoying my last couple days of laziness before the term began. I checked my Instagram, ready to scroll aimlessly. As I cleared out my stories, I saw that an Oxy student I follow had posted a screenshot of a new account with some complaints. My interest piqued, I tapped on the account @endthemandateoxy.
The account seemed innocuous. An anonymous student had started this account with a simple goal: get as many Oxy students as possible to sign a petition against the current indoor mask mandate and present it to our administration. The account had seven posts; most of them were graphics discussing various COVID-19-related data. The posts cited LAC Public Health, USC, John Hopkins and the CDC. They discussed how we now live in the stage of the pandemic where vaccines and boosters are widely available, oral medication for the immunocompromised works, LA has its own masking rules and some of our collegiate neighbors have dropped their mask mandates. Even though I see why Occidental has maintained its mask mandate, the arguments presented seemed reasonable. Their sources weren’t inflammatory but came from institutions that we have been listening to since the beginning of the pandemic. But these posts didn’t get students’ attention. Only one did.
The post, now pinned to the top of their page, is an open letter explaining the intention behind the account. This student’s language is not explosive, even if you disagree with their position. Yet it has garnered over 430 comments. My first thought was, “Yikes.” You don’t see that many comments and assume everyone is getting along or writing the lyrics to Kumbaya. But instead of clicking away, I read through all of them. As I said — it was summer, and I was a little bored.
Not all of the comments sought to insult one another. Some students discussed their concern for the immunocompromised or mentioned the mountain of COVID-19 cases after Oxy lifted the mask mandate last winter. Few tried to lower the temperature, to no avail. But I found that most of the conversation deteriorated into students trolling each other, trying to caricature their opponents in the most demeaning of ways. Abuses were thrown, hurtful language employed. (Though I did enjoy one comment that included the word “buttwipe,” a classic zinger I had forgotten about). It seemed that there were two clear camps, either for or against the mandate. Each team expressed that the other side was wrong, ignorant and simple-minded — no ifs, ands or buts.
To put it simply: it was messy and disheartening. What struck me most weren’t people’s opinions, as nuance typically gets lost in internet skirmishes, but how easy it was for us as a small community to tear each other down without flinching. We go to a small school — 1,992 students to be exact. We see the same faces daily, from our classrooms to our coffee breaks. Yet we were so ready to be vile with each other despite knowing this. Why?
What’s more, though students were expressing the importance of masks and tearing each other to pieces over this fact, since coming back to campus, we’ve slowly started abandoning them. Since last year, I’ve noticed a significant drop in students wearing them in common spaces, the Green Bean, the library, the gym, etc. — all places where we’re technically supposed to be sporting them. Did we care about the mandate, or did we just want to yell at each other on the internet?
I want to flashback for a moment to yesteryear, or at least to 2016. The 2016 presidential election came when I was becoming increasingly politically aware. I was in eighth grade, and I now understood big words like the “economy” or “globalism” that had escaped me in my youth. On election night, I was anxiously watching the television awaiting the results. It was becoming clear that Donald Trump would win. I called my dad, someone who usually makes me feel better about our world, to ask if there was any chance Hillary Clinton could prevail. Instead, all he could say was: “Bea, I’m so sorry the adults let you down.”
Over the past few years, that sentence has rung through my mind. Our political discourse has become defined by anger and screaming matches. Our highest government offices have been marred by politicians who have aligned themselves with incomprehensible messages of hate. The initial mishandling of COVID-19 caused so much unnecessary death. We are all angry. I’m angry. I want to yell on social media too. The adults have consistently let us down, and sometimes I’m so disappointed by the actions of my elders that it’s impossible to feel even a shred of hope.
But we have a choice facing us as the next generation. We can continue to walk down this path the adults have laid for us. We can let angry rhetoric win. We can surrender to disagreement without hope of reconciliation. Or, maybe, we can break the cycle. We can bring in a new era that is marked by our desire for thoughtful debate, understanding and above all, compassion. The adults have failed on the promise to leave a better world behind for their children. Will we do the same? If we do want to forge ahead, let’s start now. When an issue arises in our own community, let’s practice how we will react to difficulty for when it’s our turn as decision-makers. Let’s remember that our words carry weight and responsibility — using them to besmirch or isolate one another is a waste and an insult to our own character.
We complain that we want our world to change, but we are already falling into the bad habits of the adults around us. We are capable of so much greatness; we only need to act on it.