The next time you toss your food-laden cafeteria tray onto the conveyer belt so someone else can clean up your mess, repeat this to yourself without flinching: “Dining hall workers are not oppressed.”
Go ahead. It might be hard. Every day, students here reap the benefits of a well-oiled service sector that provides our meals, clean bathrooms, manicured lawns, and fairyland campus. While we sit in the lap of luxury, however, we squirm in it considerably, made uncomfortable by the inequality of a world we see divided into the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
But rather than confront our discomfort face-to-face, or take it up by its neck and wring it hard until solid answers fall out, most of us simply look the other way, while the more adventurous leap up on their soapboxes and unleash a barrage of self-righteous, pro-union sermonizing upon the readers of the Yale Daily News.
Josh Eidelson’s frustrating commentary (“Unions and Civil Disobedience,” 9/25) perfectly demonstrates this strategy: ameliorate our creeping guilt by taking up the campaign banner of progressive labor rights. End oppression. Champion the victims. Feel good about self again.
High-profile educational centers in America have lost the vocabulary of criticism in this age of rampant liberalism. We live in a stifling culture of “nice” that eliminates the strongest and most vibrant words from our public discourse, yellow-taping anything related to race, class or gender as too sensitive and potentially explosive for careful, critical scrutiny. We have reduced our language to one of mutual consolation, watery euphemism, and fuzzy-wuzzy romanticism.
In this cloying climate of the politically correct, what room is left for free dialogue about the world’s problems? What space exists for open discussion governed by reason and informed opinion, and not alloyed by some cheap brand of pseudo-camaraderie with the “dispossessed” that self-deluded students here generously confuse with human empathy? How can we speak freely and intelligently when we are tongue-tied by political correctness and pressured into mainstream nice-speak?
Why can’t I write this article without having to quarantine every politically sensitive term with quotation marks?
With his passionate hyperboles and misguided gestures toward a vague “new social vision,” Eidelson’s column does not represent Yale’s pro-union undergraduate persuasion favorably. But by using his commentary as Exhibit A, a mere starting point, I wish to point at a larger psychology endemic to the student body here.
Upon arrival at Yale, some seem to have brought with them a convenient set of knee-jerk defensive political stances to fall back upon at times when their real status — that of privileged educated young elites who are getting their silver platter on a silver platter — starts to introduce some vague modicum of guilt.
As a panacea for the psychological discomfort of observing the inequality of this world while standing safely outside of it, some students resort to an empty battle cry and immediately scamper over to the losing side, aligning themselves with those whom they perceive to be the oppressed, the weak, the victims. They point an angry self-righteous finger at the big bad white patriarchal college administration with the fat endowment (that would be Yale).
After this cathartic release, morally anxious students can merrily return to their self-absorption with abandon and ease. Guilt for living the privileged life is eliminated, and without painful cogitation or having to probe too deeply into our secure way of life at Yale. Hurrah.
But this supposed altruism is not real selflessness. It is not the product of philanthropic motives. It is not real goodness, either, because this convenient identification with union members does not flow from the wellspring of reasoned and informed compassion.
Rather, the sentiments expressed in commentaries such as Eidelson’s and Judy Miller’s betray a blind and desperate need to explain why we the students have so much while others around us have so little. Somewhere along the way we have figured out that by gesturing wildly toward humanitarianism and by chewing and spitting out the readily available language of nice, we can align ourselves pleasantly with the correct side. And in this era of unchecked liberalism, the correct side is anyone who has been oppressed by the illegitimate power structure of capitalist America.
What is particularly pernicious is that there are undergraduate proponents of the “civil disobedience” on College and Elm streets who use the vacuous language of nice to defend their cause and have convinced themselves that they are acting out of altruism. This is a truly fascinating trick of psychology: by identifying with union members and working off of some perversion of empathy, Yalies have successfully buffered themselves from experiencing the unpleasant guilt of those who can have their cake, eat it too, and then go for seconds at the Commons dessert counter.
Somehow Eidelson, Miller, and, I venture to posit, a good number of students here at Yale, believe that what they feel is compassion, and that compassion will always prevail and lead to resolution of humanity’s many inequities. But “goodness” without knowledge is weak. Useless. And full of gas.
It’s time to scrutinize stringently our professions of empathy and humanitarianism, and see them for the real purpose they serve some at Yale: to defer our guilt, to deflect having to turn a critical eye upon ourselves, and to offer us escapist relief from the guilt of living the privileged life.
Baolu Lan is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College.