MERCER-GOLDEN: Accounting for ourselves

To continue the theme of being the world’s worst meta English and history of art major, this column will be highly self-referential and will refer to my two previous columns for the News, one of which was, unsurprisingly, about comments on other articles.

I’ve joked that in the first column I wrote, I created a situation fraught with anxiety leading to exactly zero comments on the story, and that with the second, I incited a revolt of secret Yale Shakespeare nerds and Harold Bloom haters (sorry, Professor Bloom). But as I’ve thought about the responses I received, I can no longer brush them aside jokingly: the two incidents are symbolic of larger problems and patterns at Yale and in the world.

The morning that my second op-ed was published, I woke up to two emails from prominent voices in the Shakespearean authorship debate, both of whom took me to task for calling them snobs (though I merely stated that snobbery seemed the root of the movement to ascribe Shakespeare’s plays to anyone but Shakespeare). I haven’t responded to either of them, mostly because I have nothing to say except I’m sorry that we don’t agree. They won’t change my mind; I won’t change theirs.

What was more concerning than these emails was how rapidly the comments on the online version of the article denigrated into attacks on Yale and even, to some extent, me. (Apparently I missed a modifier. Sorry.) David Scott Kastan, the Yale professor who taught me much of what I know about Shakespeare, generously told me to not take it personally. But I did.

I took these comments personally because they were everything that I was afraid the comments on my first article would be: unproductive, mean-spirited, digressive. The emails I received from our two self-proclaimed Shakespearean authorities were similar in tone. No one wanted to talk to me: they wanted to talk over me.

The email responses I received to my first piece were, in contrast, highly supportive. Friends told me they had been following the News’ website with trepidation for months. I was flattered and surprised by these responses. Students at Yale seemed excited at the though of more accountability, more transparency, more productive conversations. And yet we all seemed afraid to begin these conversations, or to establish expectations about how we should communicate.

We need to create a culture of transparency among our friends and in our society so we can really talk — and also so we can really disagree. In watching the recent developments in the American politics, I am struck by how hard it is for anyone — the politicians especially — to have meaningful conversations. Instead of focusing on the number of affairs a politician has had (though I admit these affairs signal a shocking lack of personal integrity), why can’t we discuss the capacity of the politician in question to have a nuanced, thoughtful conversation, which seems a far more important characteristic for a president than who he or she is sleeping with? As a country, we seem to have become terrified of ambiguity, horrified that we’ll have to acknowledge the things we don’t know and the things we can’t agree on.

I watch myself participate in these same kinds of behavior — watch myself avoid hard conversations and particular people, ignore text messages. I’ve considered why I am so anxious in these moments. Is it only that I am the chronically sleep-deprived Yale student who avoids conflict out of exhaustion? Or I am something else — a person who is afraid to own up to complicated, messy feelings and even more afraid to talk about them for fear of losing friends, losing face, admitting to vulnerabilities I don’t like to share? Perhaps I am afraid of being disappointed if I do have difficult conversations and terrified of being hurt in the aftermath.

I have to hold myself to the same standards of personal accountability that I demanded of commenters on the News’ website. A desire to avoid accountability and productive discourse is at the root of so many of our problems, including our problems with hookups and drinking at Yale. This was certainly the case with the recent WEEKEND article (“Just say no (to awful sex),” Jan. 20) about sexual interactions at Yale, and the comments on the News website have further demonstrated the extent to which it’s hard to have meaningful and constructive conversations. I don’t want to continue to be a part of these problems.

I’ve come to one conclusion: We won’t change political, personal or published discourse unless we become braver and take accountability for our own feelings, asking for what we really want instead of trying to avoid disappointment or complications. Maybe it’s time for me to email the Shakespeare people back. They deserve better from me than what I’ve given thus far.

Zoe Mercer-Golden is a junior in Davenport College. Contact her at zoe.mercer-golden@yale.edu.

Comments

  • hschumann

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. As someone who has participated on message boards for years, it is getting harder and harder to be able to conduct any discussion of issues without having to deal with sarcastic put-downs, outright insults, dismissal and ridicule. It is a dismaying result of a corporate culture in which people can recognize that most of the advertising messages, the shouting of political pundits, and attacks of politicans do not tell the truth. We have forgotten how to have a civil conversation because we don’t trust anyone to tell the truth. Thanks for reminding us of our obligation to be responsible and respectful in our communications.

  • River_Tam

    Zoe,

    I didn’t see your first piece or I would have commented on it then. It’s really good!

    I assume that I fall into the category of online commenters that you hate – I say things online that I might not phrase as harshly in person (although anyone who knows me in person would know that I don’t exactly pull punches in meatspace either). I think this is actually a liberating facet of anonymity and the internet.

    For instance, if I was your friend and told you “this is a great piece and you’re an insightful writer”, you’d be happy, but you wouldn’t know if I’m being truthful or not. After all, I might simply be sparing your feelings as your friend. Since I don’t know you personally and I’ve ripped many YDN writers for purple prose and lackluster columns, you can take my opinion without this grain of salt.

    I have a very good friend who liked to rap. He used to go everywhere and freestyle a few verses and – let’s be honest – he was good by the standards of my neighborhood but not professional or anything. However, he developed a reputation as a sick MC and people kept telling him that he was so close to getting a record deal. He became obsessed with the idea. He toyed with the notion of dropping out of high school to “tour” and try to get signed by 50 Cent or some sht.

    But when he posted a few YouTube videos, the commenters on YouTube (much worse than the YDN, I assure you) ripped him apart. He was a cheap knock-off of Lupe Fiasco, they said. His rhymes were simplistic. He had no knack for imagery. So what did he do? He decided to go to college and keep practicing. His youtube videos now get mixed to positive comments – and he’s still improving.

    TLDR: The internet is liberating because you can trust that when an anonymous person says something, they aren’t saying it simply to be your friend or make you feel good about yourself – they actually mean it.

    PS: I didn’t mean to get into the “I hate Harold Bloom” discussion, since I simply cited him in approval of your column, but my aside (calling him a horrible person) kind of spiraled after that.

  • The Anti-Yale

    ” but my aside (calling him a horrible person) kind of spiraled after that.”

    Only because I defended Mr. Bloom from gossip, innuendo, and hearsay —– as , by the way, I do Mr. Witt, whose talents (unlike Mr. Bloom’s) are unknown to me, since I pay zero attention to football (isn’t there a super-bowl being performed right this second, somewhere?)

    PK

    • River_Tam

      The Super Bowl is next weekend.

      You also tried to defend (ineffectively) Harold Bloom from his own bigoted remarks against Mitt Romney. Like I said, I don’t judge Bloom for Naomi “opportunism” Wolf coming forward with a story years old. I judge him for his public statements.

  • The Anti-Yale

    How is it bigoted to be concerned about a religion whose leaders issue commands? I take commands from no one. Nor should any American.

    PK

    • River_Tam

      > How is it bigoted to be concerned about a religion whose leaders issue commands? I take commands from no one. Nor should any American.

      Reminds me of the anti-Catholic sentiment surrounding JFK, who, it was rumored, was taking his marching orders from the Vatican.

  • The Anti-Yale

    It was never so rumored about JFK. The issue was the Pope speaking ‘ex cathedra” and a communican’t obligation to obey “ex cathedra” pronouncements.

    American RCC bishops (and a famous German bishop) have made it clear that they “interpret” the Vatican’s “commands”.

    I do not know how this plays out in LDS since they are secretive.

    PK