Falsifying campus unity lowers value of its diversity

Maybe it’s the fact that I spent much of last week in Madison, Wis., and I wanted to offset a steady diet of Midwestern cheer with a bit of East Coast snarling ambition. Maybe it’s the fact that the race to the Democratic nomination gets more stagnant, even bitter, with each passing day, and I was starved for fresh campaign coverage. Or maybe it’s just that I spent the weekend taping the Jeopardy! College Championship, and I wanted to assure myself that someone out there was dorkier than I was. The point is that, for no discernible reason, I’ve paid an embarrassing amount of attention to this year’s board elections for Yale College Council.

I do mean “embarrassing” — in fact, it seems voyeuristic. In most respects, the YCC is no less insular than any other student organization. Seats are frequently won by candidates running as “outsiders,” but they lose that status the minute they take office — no one ever calls a current YCC member an outsider or maverick. (Then again, nobody really talks about the YCC during the year at all.) But for some reason, for a two-week span in April, all this is cast aside in favor of the promising myth that the YCC is a universal body, and its leaders universally recognizable.

Think about it. The overwhelming majority of YCC campaign posters feature the candidate’s picture, or at very least her name. The implication is that everyone on campus has seen these people around, or at least heard of them, making them truly representative. It’s perfectly noble reasoning. The only problem is that no one at Yale is that widely known. Even in spring, when college courtyards are crowded and everyone seems friendlier and more public, this campus is extremely socially heterogeneous. It’s difficult enough to make a niche for yourself in multiple social circles, let alone attain celebrity.

This seems to be a uniquely Yale phenomenon. Even large colleges, such as UW-Madison, have celebrities or “favorite sons.” One of my fellow contestants, a UW student, spent the weekend blinded by flashbulbs and congratulated by strangers. Try as I might, I couldn’t picture Yalies getting so excited about someone they didn’t know — even if she did get to meet Alex Trebek.

And boy, was I glad. I could barely handle the attention I got in Madison, though compared to the hometown hero I got very little. It’s not that I’m a shrinking violet, but the vague flattery I got from strangers wasn’t satisfying; they recognized me but didn’t know me.

This is the flip side of the fragmented social sphere that is the Yale bubble — what recognition we do get comes from people who are more likely to know us as individuals, making it more meaningful than mere fame. It’s a tough adjustment, especially when so many of us have come from being big fish in small ponds and so many harbor aspirations of rising to the top in the real world. Luckily, Yale provides us with plenty of role models for how to turn quiet recognition into quiet pride: Few of our professors are celebrities, but most are well-respected in their fields, and many of the best Master’s Teas are given for guests whose accomplishments speak louder than their reputations.

But such comfortable anonymity is impossible in the close quarters of college — it’s jarring to live among people whose lifestyle choices are so different as to be incomprehensible and belittling these choices is as logical as it is disrespectful. Ned Fulmer’s column this week on student athletes came in for well-deserved scorn, but few speak out when a particularly passionate YCC candidate gets called a “tool” (the kiss of death in college politics) by people who can’t see how student government could be interesting. This broad acceptance of certain stereotypes makes me skeptical of those who want students to “put our differences behind us,” as contributors to this page urged yesterday; do they wish that those who don’t understand them were more tolerant, or that those people they themselves don’t understand were more normal?

If the road to unity must be smoothed by homogenization, it’s not worth it. It would be easier for one person to relate to everyone, but on the most insincere level: celebrity bought for cheap. As it is, the close friendships we do have can bridge fragmented social groups and create understanding; by replacing empty fame with warm recognition, they define us as well as affirm us. Last weekend, the name chanted throughout the auditorium belonged to the local contestant; meanwhile, the signs in my five-person cheering section bore obscure anthropology references. They wouldn’t have won me any votes in a YCC election, but I don’t see the appeal of trying to speak for everyone anyway. In my experience, it only takes a few people to know the right thing to say.

Dara Lind is a junior in Branford College. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.