Shower e-mail did not merit media frenzy

Apparently, Yale is enmeshed in scandal. You wouldn’t know from the usual mix of problem sets and friendly dining hall lunches, but the Associated Press knows better. One of its headlines online last Friday read: “Steamy shower has Yale students in hot water.” Added Yahoo! News: “Yale in a lather over steamy showers.”

Here, excerpted, is what Calhoun Master Jonathan Holloway wrote to all Calhoun students this past week:

“OK, well THIS is the most awkward college-wide e-mail I’ve ever had to send. … Showers are to be used by individuals for hygienic purposes only … [not] couples engaged in intimate activity … leav[ing] showers in a decidedly less hygienic state. … Several times … Hounies have come across a couple having the time of their lives in a shower. … Last night the shower flooded and … could not be used for over 90 minutes. To the as yet unidentified couple, this may be pleasurable … but it is a violation of community standards. Please stop. I really don’t want to explore this matter any further as I respect your individual privacy. But such continued brazen public displays of affection will only invite public embarrassment. I beg of you, let’s not go there.”

The master gets word of this riotous story; he sends a forewarning but wry e-mail; we have a good laugh, agree that “get a room” does not include the bathroom and go back to our business — namely, going to school. End of discussion, right?

It would be, had the Hartford Courant, WFSB Channel 3 and the Associated Press not tracked down the e-mail, which ought to have stayed private in Yale’s community.

The reason journalism exists is that not everybody can be directly involved in making our world a better place. In our representative republic, journalists — our vanguards of “inconvenient truth” — link us, the people, with those who make change. By staying informed, we can stay invested and empowered. We youth especially depend on our elders for a trickle-down spirit of a broader community’s civic duty.

Instead, apparently, our elders spend their time peering through our keyholes. Journalists outfit the operation with smarmy puns (“in hot water,” “in a lather”), and plenty of people await the article.

One might wonder — without suggesting that we all use the showers for “intimate activity” — if the over-sexualized creeps in this saga are the countless Americans who are far too curious.

WFSB’s video, exceeding two minutes, bears the title, “Big Story.” An “eyewitness news reporter” sneers at Master Holloway’s “tastefully” and “oh-so-delicately” phrased e-mail, evoking, to much schadenfreude, Yale’s image as elite, as if surely the culprits slipped hastily into “Nantucket red” polo shirts after their daily “shower,” seeming “oh-so-delicate” — until WFSB got the scoop.

But as Mr. Eyewitness scours Elm Street for student interviews, he gushes unsavory leading questions (“It’s college! What are you going to do in the shower? Come on!”). Journalists know what sells. On the Boston Globe’s Web site, the Yale story was the 21st most e-mailed of 633 articles, topping coverage of the U.N.’s denouncing global warming and a feature on Iran’s “social thaw.”

As Lewis Black told us, current events make it easy to be a comedian: Just tell what actually happened.

But a second level of absurdity lies beyond asking the grown-ups, “Who’s salacious now?” Maybe adults yearn for a window into youth mores. Most college kids do not use the showers in this way; still, to fear that sexuality in our generation has swerved toward the crass is to stake out important ground.

The question then becomes: What is the right way to react to a social problem?

Ann Coulter and Michael Moore model a method of simmering in one’s own vitriol. On criticalmassblog.com, one Yalie marked “a new chapter in … Yale’s continuing descent into the depths of moral degradation.” The AP story concludes with his quote.

We are all tempted to become so invested in our beliefs as to shout them right past the very people we hope to convince. When we fall to this temptation and let our ideas become more important to us than the problems we need to solve, and the people we need to work with to solve them, we are not really honoring ideas at all. We are taking ourselves too seriously. The result both hurts people and impedes our ideas themselves: Nobody will want to listen to us if we do not treat those we address as real people worth our time — and only listening enables understanding, which gives rise to action, which in turn creates progress.

The one person who comes off well in this mess is Master Holloway. His fusion of humor and toughness reveals someone who cares about the people he addresses, leveling with them to work with them. He is saying: “You’re good people. But come on now. Let’s be serious.”

By “respect[ing] … privacy,” and seeing the absurdity in all this, Master Holloway earned himself a seat at the table where young people make decisions, when a strident pedant would have made himself irrelevantly self-righteous.

So many problems worsen when people do not listen: between President Bush and Kim Jong Il, who craves a modicum of the attention Saddam enjoyed; between gridlocked Republicans and Democrats; between parents and children on precarious, crucial topics like sexuality.

One wonders how much good could be done if more conversations began: “You’re a good person. But come on now. Let’s be serious.”

Noah Lawrence is a sophomore in Saybrook College. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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