A Yalie stole my skateboard last week. It was taken, on Friday night, from the Saybrook courtyard, where I had propped it against a wall as I conversed with friends during an outdoor cocktail party.
My first instinct: Quick, blame a townie! Then, realizing that there were no Philistines lurking within the walled confines of the Saybrook courtyard: Quick, blame a freshman! Maybe they don’t understand the unspoken rules of this place. They are new here. Perhaps they don’t know better.
I searched the courtyard, twice, and then searched again. I asked everybody present if they had seen anything suspicious. I searched a fourth time. And then, as the reality of the loss set in, I experienced disbelief, followed by anger, followed by a deep and unshruggable sense of violation. While the anger passed, the sense of violation has stuck. A week later, I’m still stinging from the realization that, for two years, I’ve allowed myself to be deceived by my trust in a myth: the myth of compassionate community that Yale exudes, and that we as Yale students perpetrate. It’s a myth that doesn’t prepare us for the reality that Yalies can in fact do each other harm, and it’s a myth that — as events this semester have shown — can have much more serious consequences than getting a skateboard stolen.
Of course, we have no right to feel this way, to validate and sustain the sort of Ivy League exceptionalism that should rightfully have died around the time Eli Whitney got admitted. My roommate this summer in New York, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon, understood this. “Who are these ‘Yalies’ you’re always talking about?” he asked me. “You go to school together. It’s not an ethnicity.”
He’s right, of course. Being a Yalie is not a genetic or phenotypic phenomenon, nor is it even a nationality; in that category, the Somalis and the Israelis have got us beat. Yet, despite these facts, why does this idea of “being a Yalie” — with its attendant set of rights and privileges, or, at the very least, expectations — continue to hold such sway? Why do we feel so insulated, and when that paper-thin insulation is punctured — as it was earlier this semester, when a sophomore’s mugshot appeared on the front page of this newspaper, stamped indelibly next to a headline about rape charges — why do we feel so betrayed?
To answer this, we could turn to all sorts of sociologies and philosophies and anthropologies. One could expound on Kant, Hobbes, Rousseau, social contracts, the consent of the governed.
But, most essentially, this phenomenon of us believing deeply in our belonging to an imaginary Tribe of Yale is rooted in that most potent of human desires: the desire to belong to something bigger than one’s self.
But the problem is that we are not “Yalies” in the same way that we are daughters and uncles and sons. The difference between the clan and the university is one of scale, and therefore of intimacy, and therefore of the strength and magnitude of ethical bonds. We will never be Yalies essentially, act on our “Yalieness” primordially, or make sacrifices for this imaginary clan. The bond of Bright College Years is not the bond of brotherhood.
We each have friends, suitemates, teammates, acquaintances, crushes and lab partners. We all have a stock of names and faces that we hold as common currency — the minor campus celebrities, the politicians’ kids, the 50 Most Beautiful, Jamie Kirchick, that long-haired grad student who looks like Jesus who’s always sitting in the window at Koffee? Two. But we are, for the most part, strangers to each other. And while most people wouldn’t steal from a suitemate, there will always be people who will steal from strangers.
And so, while we are, of course, Yalies, let’s stop pretending that this term implies something grand or moral. The term is primarily self-serving. There are no “unspoken rules.” We are only Yalies insofar as we imagine ourselves as such.
Whether as alumni advising students on career choices or as students compulsively building social networks on facebook.com, we’re acting out of self-interest in a way, perpetuating this kinship myth and solidifying our position within it. Yale is bigger than we are. It has 300 years of history; we’ll be lucky to get a century. It is built of stone where we have only flesh. It’s no wonder it feels so gratifying to nestle vicariously under its plush blue mantle.
Just don’t be surprised if you go to a party and your skateboard gets stolen.
Daniel Weisfield is a sophomore in Calhoun College.