Content Warning: The following article contains references to sexual assault, drugging and violence.
A few weeks ago, I woke up in a frenzy of incomplete assignments and an overflowing email inbox. Although I wish I were one of those people who could simply garner the willpower to work without an external incentive, I fear that day may never come, and I may forever be confined to sourcing my work ethic from iced coffees and electropop at 10 in the morning.
I finished a day’s worth of work in the span of an hour, and something about it made me feel so powerful. Whether my serotonin came from cleaning the angry emails from my inbox or one of my two antidepressant medications’ triumph, I mostly attribute my motivation to the fact that “reputation” — you know, the album where Taylor Swift reflected on her widely publicized celebrity feuds and bridge-burns — was playing in the background.
Thus, my “reputation” era was born. In a 2021 context, the album was so ahead of its time, and although I do not necessarily identify as a “Swiftie,” it exquisitely manifests my current persona and motivated me to write this letter.
I must admit, though, that I revised, restarted and deleted this letter before deciding on this version. In my first draft, I aggressively expressed my anger. In fact, I planned to publish it on this day because I knew that when it inevitably enraged people on all sides of the political spectrum, I could flee to the East Coast where I would seek asylum over the break.
I was angry about writing to walls: You can garner the support of thousands of students and faculty with a piece that criticizes a broken system, yet an optics-obsessed administration’s response tells you that they either didn’t read it, or they read it but they will only ever see you, the student, as a profiting vehicle.
I’m still angry, but after some reflection on my own letter about reflection, I had a timely epiphany: As the opinion editor at Daily Trojan, I obviously want to express my opinions, and while I can use an open letter to rant as a form of catharsis, to what extent will my opinions be productive and invite readers instead of ostracizing them?
Like Taylor amid her feuds with Katy Perry and Kanye West, I have been entangled in my fair share of controversy in the past few months, from my personal life to my professional — or as professional as you consider a University student-run newspaper — life.
Media illiteracy has been a main source of this controversy. For instance, our social media comments for the Editorial Board piece read along the lines of, “Why is the Daily Trojan so biased and editorializing news?”
Opinions, believe it or not, are not impartial. Newspapers’ opinion sections intend to bring perspectives to the limelight and invoke discourse — as long as said discourse does not incite violence against marginalized communities nor disseminate misinformation.
More specifically, in light of our Editorial Board piece addressing sexual assaults committed at Interfraternity Council chapters, discourse has flooded my carpet from all sides of the aisle.
Most of these responses deflect from the nuanced issue at hand; hence, I call them deflections. In oppressive systems of power, reform — a deflection in and of itself — is not possible because it does not actually prevent harm: It only saves face.
I witnessed outrage from fraternity members, families of fraternity members and people who don’t know the fraternity members who committed sexual assault but assure they are all “very good and innocent people.” One Instagram comment accused us of accusing “a lot of innocent, wonderful people.”
Members of Greek life perceived calls to abolish IFC as deflections from sexual assault. Queer men in fraternities scoffed at the piece, perceiving themselves as immune to misogyny and complicity in sexual assault. Students resorted to toxic unity, insisting the piece divided us and that we must come together to support each other in lieu of dismantling the structures and culture that enable the rapists who continue dividing us.
Although I could defend the piece and advocate for the school’s widespread need for some Kimberlé Crenshaw and Intersectionality Theory all day, the piece planted a necessary seed in the community, which the student body, faculty and staff continue to cultivate everyday. Its aftermath does not only warrant a continuous discussion regarding rape culture and Greek life, but it also prompts introspection.
I thought about my position as a senior; someone who will graduate in May with two USC degrees emblazoned on my resume forever — an educational opportunity for which I am forever grateful.
However, USC’s culture of classism and entitlement continually disappoints and embarrasses me. Students flaunt their privilege and oblivion like assets — i.e. student-made signs during the UCLA football game reading, “My maid went to UCLA” and “Public school sucks.”
I am at a crossroads: Despite USC’s entrenched flaws, I demand better and hope for it to eventually stop endangering students. But after witnessing the administration’s deflection strategies during the past three years, from optical responses to Black Lives Matter to the Sigma Nu aftermath, I do not anticipate that the University — no matter the amount of pressure from students, faculty, staff and community — will ever burn down the ugliness it sows.
Just as I find it continually exhausting to demand better from the United States — and I write this immediately after hearing the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict — this administration continually tests my sanity. Its system benefits me as a white, cisgender man and has yet to desensitize me to its injustices.
At the same time, as someone living with mental illness, I am desensitized in so many other aspects of my life, making it even more exhausting to consistently feel like I have to explain myself in both my personal life and my role as opinion editor. As much as we need empathy now, we must also admit its mental and emotional tax and confront respectability politics’ role in upholding systems of oppression.
For instance, I still find myself navigating new friends’ ideologies, which directly contradict my own at times. Consequently, I struggle coping with and relieving the cognitive dissonance. In such a polarized world, not everyone will align with my ideology, obviously. To what extent, however, can I separate someone else’s political framework from our companionship and distinguish the beliefs I can tolerate from the dealbreakers?
If I do not address people when they deflect from the issue at hand, am I deflecting from my morals? If I do not double down on my beliefs nor press further in discourse, am I deflecting from myself?
Despite my natural inclination to join discourse when I see it (see: The Eck’s Factor), a “reputation” era warrants vulnerability amid a world on fire. It allows us to give ourselves the slightest peace of mind when our efforts fail in a system designed to squash them. It allows us to mediate conflict when the world rallies against us.
Although I am by no means a quintessential music icon nor voice of a generation, we can use this reflection as an opportunity to make sense of the deflections around us. And if we determine it just, we can deflect from our own moral compass’ direction. Nowadays, we can at least give ourselves that flexibility.