Claude Levi Strauss, the father of structural anthropology, was often said to observe humans like ants, discerning universal laws that guided their behavior. Today’s anthill is Facebook; the universal law is the inevitability of misunderstandings.
Context is indeed king — what is acceptable in one place may be abominable in another. During the Orientation for International Students, one of my friends — a student from a conservative country — did not allow us to take photographs of him in our funny talent show costumes.It would incense his friends if they saw it on Facebook, he said. While I probably should have laughed it off or ignored it, the comment stuck with me.
For all the personal liberty afforded to us by virtue of our liberal education, why would someone care about what others sitting thousands of miles away from the Yale bubble think?
As I thought about it, I realized my friend’s situation struck nearer to home. Along came Safety Dance, with its amazingly outrageous costumes and outfits reminiscent of the exaggeratedly colorful 80s. Post-Safety controversy aside, I had a wonderful time dancing and hanging out with my friends.
When the pictures from that night were put up on Facebook, the reality of the Yale bubble became clearer to me. My high-school acquaintances posted comments on my pictures that — while maybe too colloquial and mundane to appear here — suggested that I somehow had become a changed person.
I would have to be a fool to be disheartened by these snide asides from people on the other side of the world. But I was taken aback, and wondered how many other Yalies waste their time thinking about the reactions of people back home.
Only a few decades ago, the only way a Yalie from, say, the West Coast — let alone India — could communicate with friends and family back home was via a letter or a long-distance phone call. Now, with the advent of Skype and Facebook, every dorm party can be streamed into the dorm rooms of high school friends.
Don’t get me wrong; I don’t prefer returning to the Stone Age and replacing social media with carrier pigeons, but I find the overexposure a bit tedious. Though we only can live in one city at once, we increasingly find ourselves also squeezed into the semi-real world of social media — wedged between where we came from and where we are now.
Perhaps the most inspiring speech I’ve heard so far at Yale was the address delivered by Dean Mary Miller during freshman orientation. During her speech, Miller asked us to leave the expectations of others behind and forge our own destiny at Yale: the heart of exploration and knowledge. Too many hours are lost Skyping girlfriends in another state or at another college, too much thought is given pondering comments from random acquaintances. Too much energy is wasted carrying the baggage of the past.
Obviously, we are all free to interact with others as we deem fit — to deal with the past on our own terms. After all, we alone can make the decisions that affect us; we can’t outsource responsibility to others. That being said, the ghosts of the past should be only secondary to the exciting stuff that goes on at Yale.
I never imagined I could sit at a dining hall table and chat with someone, only to later realize my conversation partner was an ultra-famous professor emeritus. I never imagined my freshman adviser — the person helping me pick intro courses — would be researching a cure for cancer. But all this has happened — Yale has made it happen. And I’m not missing all of this for Facebook.
Dhruv Aggarwal is a freshman in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.