This past November, Rumpus finally exposed the Yale Political Union’s Conservative Party for what it is: a cultish and unrepentant “BDSM society” masquerading under the guise of right-wing authoritarianism. The Chief Whip, it seems, lives up to the title in a very literal sense. One can only imagine the slight felt by the News: A hexa-annual publication had just stolen the biggest story of 2014.
Such satire should be welcome from time to time. We all go to Yale, after all, and deflating our institutions goes a long way towards deflating our sometimes-all-too-substantial egos. As someone who is a member of the Conservative Party and a columnist for the News, I have no problem with self-effacing humor.
There is a fine line, however, between good-spirited mockery and genuine contempt. Which is why, for the sake of good manners and civil society at Yale, I am calling on the student body to resist an insidious pattern in our campus discourse: activity shaming.
Much as the University advertises prestigious extracurriculars like the YPU and the News, criticisms of these time-honored traditions abound over meals and social gatherings. The YPU has a reputation for elitism and section-assholery, while the YDN incurs scorn for its tony demeanor and (very, very strong) liberal bias. Despite the popular infamy of secret societies, public organizations by their nature endure far more ridicule: We all know who participates and what kind of clothing they wear and what classes they take.
Principled criticism aimed at solving serious institutional problems is one thing. But too often the critiques of high-profile activities lapse into superficial and unproductive ad hominems — an especially troubling tendency given the fundamental absurdity of nearly every single extracurricular on campus.
The Yale Debate Association consistently belittles the YPU for allegedly prioritizing rhetoric and posture over substance. Fine. Has anyone noticed that both activities essentially boil down to the same thing: engaging in arguments about public policy that will do nothing to change the minds of actual policy makers?
People lambast the News for its purportedly competitive mentality and self-aggrandizing façade. But is Rumpus, which comingles sex jokes with affirmations that “No One Gives a Fuck About Your SAT Scores,” really any less pretentious? The joke only works because everyone at Yale has good SAT scores — a fact everyone remembers the moment they read the headline!
Some students partake in spoken word poetry, that glorious celebration of self-expression, identity and blank-verse ingenuity. Those three things are, in most American high schools, a great way to get beaten up. Like many supposedly modest activities that enshrine the plurality of human experience, its pretention of humility is what makes it so pretentious.
But to be honest, who cares?
Insert “Yale” in front nearly any group — an a capella troupe, a political action club or a magazine — and the result is almost invariably elitist. At how many other universities would symphony orchestra tickets sell out within hours? Where else would people write serious columns indicting the administration for its appalling lack of leadership with language that sounds like it belongs in the First Catilinarian oration, not a collegiate newspaper?
We all live, breath and revere intellectual snobbery in some form or another every day. Why, then, do we subject perfectly legitimate leisure activities to such vitriolic invective? Some people enjoy wearing suits and arguing with their friends about politics. Others enjoy wearing suits and rehearsing Beethoven’s 5th and still others enjoy campaigning for justice in the streets of New Haven (and then attending galas … in suits). We can and should debate the relative social benefit of all these things, but too often that’s not what happens. Too often we trade the opportunity to discourse about meaningful issues for the sorts of banal, equivocal attacks that are levied against the Ivy League en masse. When these insults stop being satirical, they stop being funny and start being stupid.
Let’s all be nice to one another. And for goodness sake, let’s remember that pretentious humility is not humility. It’s pretentious.
Aaron Sibarium is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.