Dugo: The better angels of our nature

Mona Dugo, Contributor

At this year’s New Student Convocation, I listened as University President Michael Schill ushered in a new academic year. As dean of students, I was excited to welcome you, our extraordinary student body, to a fully in-person campus experience. Toward the end of the president’s address, I was confused when I heard students begin to cough. I later learned the coughing originated from Yik Yak, the proximity-based app that connects people anonymously within a certain area.

When I reviewed the Yik Yak thread after the event, I saw that anonymous students in the audience had stirred up the coughing, which I found to be disrespectful — an example of how anonymity in social media can bleed into and reshape our real-life social world. Had the banter just stayed online, I would not be writing this message. In contrast, the previous evening, President Schill and I attended Rock the Lake, where we were thrilled to meet students, and he took selfies to post on Instagram. Everyone had a terrific time.

When I spoke just before the president, I emphasized the importance of looking out for one another’s well-being. Coming out of an isolating and often devastating pandemic, it is essential to forge the supportive relationships and network ties that make up our collective social safety net. With rates of depression and anxiety soaring in recent years, especially among young people, it is more important than ever to look out for each other and to be kind, patient and empathetic.

I’m not the first person to note that social media cuts both ways: It can both build community and tear it down. But reading further on Yik Yak, my heart sank as I saw vulgar and sexualized commentary directed at me and my body. I wondered how the students felt as they posted those words. Did it make them happier? More whole? Smug and superior? Did they think about how I might feel? Or my children or husband? Or does such discourse hurt and debase us all?

It was disorienting and demoralizing to read such cruel messages from the students that I have dedicated my professional life to serving. But, this isn’t about me or the president. In my 10 years at Northwestern, I have seen many young lives destroyed on social media when the cybermob comes calling. 

I’ve seen cases when incomplete or inaccurate information spreads, and a trial by social media ruthlessly renders its judgment. I’ve seen students have their reputations ruined and suffer emotional breakdowns. I’ve seen students bullied into transferring out of NU. I’ve also seen cases where the self-righteous anger of the mob cruelly metes out social punishments far out of proportion with the infraction. In short, I’ve seen too much cruelty, oftentimes masked by the cowardice of anonymity.

I believe with my whole heart that an overwhelming majority of NU students are not only extraordinarily talented but also kind, empathetic and committed to making the world a more just place. Indeed, I believe the world needs young people like you. College is a time to choose what kind of person you will become, a time to heed “the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln said in 1861.

We also live in fraught times. Our actions — online or in-person, anonymous or identified — will continue to ripple through our campus community for both good and ill. We all slip up from time to time, of course — myself included. 

So, I write not to scold but to remind us all that online actions have real implications. I ask once again for you to play a vital role in the social safety net our community needs and deserves. Choose kindness. 

We must choose our better angels.

Mona Dugo is the assistant vice president of wellness and dean of students at Northwestern University. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.