It is a daily occurrence in Yale’s dining halls. After having stacked one or two thousand calories’ worth of food onto his plate, a hungry student eagerly reaches for silverware, only to find that the fork supply has been depleted. He stares blankly at the empty canister for a few seconds, looks around to see if there are any forks elsewhere (perhaps in the soda machine or in a basket of apples) and then waits for a fork to materialize. Realizing that we live in a bleak, torturous reality in which forks tend not to appear out of thin air, he groans in frustration and goes to sit down, grabbing a piece of bread or a muffin to hold him over until a member of the dining-hall staff decides to replenish the fork canister.
Approaching a dining-hall staff member seems so simple, yet when the coffee runs out or there are no soup bowls left, few people take the initiative to get the problem solved. We would rather suffer through hunger and thirst, finding ways to eat cereal with a fork or limiting our diets to chicken fingers, than face the horrors of an encounter with dining-hall staff members.
This phenomenon is not limited to Yale, nor to the 21st century. In his 1961 essay “Why Don’t We Complain?” conservative author and commentator William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 noted his generation’s fear of self-assertion, attributing it to deference towards authority. In an age of technology and centralized political power, Buckley argued, Americans were unaccustomed to dealing with their own problems, and preferred to let other, presumably more powerful people resolve their issues.
Buckley viewed the American inability to complain as indicative of broader political passivity. The growth of bureaucracy and large corporations was subordinating the individual to the organization, a self-perpetuating process that diminished personal agency. “From this alienation of personal power comes the sense of resignation with which we accept the political dispensations of a powerful government whose hold upon us continues to increase,” he argued.
David Brooks dubbed the politically passive, deferent citizen the “Organization Man.” In the early to mid-20th century, people operated within large organizations. Most men did military service, the government carried out large-scale infrastructure projects and many Americans worked for large manufacturing companies. Now, Brooks tells us, “Nobody wants to be an Organization Man. We like start-ups, disrupters and rebels. Creativity is honored more than the administrative execution.” So what explains our continued reluctance to face authority?
In a piece for The New York Times published in December, American novelist Bret Easton Ellis wrote about the dreaded “cult of likability.” Ellis asserts that, due to our rampant use of social media and a strong push toward “inclusivity” in the political and social realms, Americans today do everything they can to avoid confrontation. We try at all times to exhibit a positive disposition, never getting angry or critical.
He explains, “Facebook [encourages] users to ‘like’ things, and because it [is] a platform where many people [brand] themselves on the social Web for the first time, the impulse [is] to follow the Facebook dictum and present an idealized portrait of their lives — a nicer, friendlier, duller self.” This emphasis on likability at all costs has made people cautious of upsetting others. As a result, if the dining hall runs out of coffee, or there is no one at the cash register at Durfee’s, we simply accept it. Raising our voices would be too negative, too bothersome.
The cult of likability is easy to navigate: always smile; like everything on Facebook; if you disagree with somebody, keep your mouth shut. Just be nice.
This explains, on some level, the homogeneity of Yale’s political and intellectual climate. The student who fears raising a concern with Chef Chris is not likely to raise questions about a professor’s propagation of a political agenda, or the reasoning behind campus protests. Instead, we all assume bland, uncontroversial positions, hoping not to piss anyone off.
Trying to be “relatable” and likeable all the time, however, turns us into virtuous robots without fully formed personalities and opinions. Individualism cannot flourish when we avoid disagreement. As Ellis states, our attempts to fit into the culture of niceness end up “stamping out passion; stamping out the individual.”
I am not saying you should be an asshole all the time. But ignoring our negative impulses and attempting to curry favor with everyone removes an essential aspect of our agency as human beings. Individual people run this University, and indeed this world. If we fear upsetting others, we create a static, uninteresting polity that toes the line drawn by popular opinion. And we have to eat chicken with a spoon.
Daniel Tenreiro-Braschi is a freshman in Ezra Stiles College. Contact him at email@example.com .