I used to wonder how world leaders and top executives flaunted Ivy League degrees but lacked the basic manners we learned in kindergarten. But now headlines about politicians taunting each other with petty names or CEOs sexually harassing employees no longer faze me. This isn’t because I’ve become desensitized to them — quite the contrary, I’ve witnessed this indecency firsthand.
Hopes were high for the people I would meet in college, assuming that those who looked good on paper would also have decent character. I anticipated that the “well-rounded” student admissions officers search for meant well-rounded in every way, not just academically and professionally, but in terms of integrity, too. The empathy intrinsic to service work we put on college applications does not seem to carry over to our social interactions.
We see our fellow classmates self-identifying as human rights activists and social justice warriors with the token goal of “making a difference,” all with impressive efforts. But with a simple change of scene, somewhere between classrooms and dining halls, suites and frat houses, the empathetic facade falls away. People no longer need to hide behind shiny resumes and political statements — the thick air, blaring beats and dark rooms shadowed the hypocrisy I observed as the dim light exclusively illuminated revealing scenes that left me deeply disappointed. Friends and colleagues abandoning their visibly uncomfortable peers in favor of potential romantic prospects or simply harassing others. Yet the next day, these same people were unapologetically organizing marches and charity events. Too often, I encounter this caveated empathy. If we can’t even be there for those closest to us, how can we expect ourselves to lead social justice initiatives around campus, let alone the world?
We’re all destined for greatness — that’s the rhetoric that has surrounded us since that blue folder came in the mail. We become more and more preoccupied with macro-level initiatives pushing us to devalue the hours we spend building personal relationships and causing us to believe that spending time with a distressed friend is a waste. We then resort to activism as it affords some sort of elevated status and in our minds, lets us check the “good-person box” while also allowing us to pad our resumes. This leads us to be hesitant to dismiss people’s questionable personal behavior simply due to their prominence, and so character becomes the last criterion by which we judge someone. We get so caught up in the appearances of social change that we forget that some of the most important changes we can make come in our day-to-day interactions. Our activism becomes meaningless if we can’t even treat our peers with basic respect.
By sophomore spring, my disillusioned self decided to rush a sorority. Initially, I enjoyed the rush process, meeting a variety of new people and engaging in small talk. I loved projecting the charming, friendly version of myself with everyone reciprocating. This surface-level acquaintanceship was easy as I didn’t have to deal with the complexities and hardships of close friendship. But I realized I didn’t necessarily need new friendships — I was happiest devoting my energy into my imperfect, yet undoubtedly worthwhile ones, letting myself get to know people on a deeper level. By the same token, I felt as though empathizing with and listening to someone made me more of an activist than being a club board member, retweeting a news article or supporting a campus initiative.
Kindness seems like a simple concept yet somehow difficult for top students to grasp. But people don’t fall into binary categories of “good” and “bad.” We’re motivated by a complex array of factors, but ultimately many sacrifice depth of character for their own advancement. It’s easy to condemn heinous wars but challenging to emotionally invest in and empathize with the person next to you. The latter requires time and energy most of us are short of, leaving us to make tough choices between our future success and meaningful connections. Looking at others’ achievements, we lose confidence, compensating with our activism while failing to recognize that the biggest foe is our own insecurity.
Maybe I’m being naive — it’s tempting to be pessimistic as we can’t expect ourselves to be perfect moral arbitrators, but the instances of greatest empathy and genuine activism often go unrecognized. Little steps go a long way, from walking an uncomfortable friend from a party to checking on a suitemate’s well-being. I’m afraid that if we don’t check questionable behavior now, we’ll let indecency endure, allowing for another generation of hypocritical leaders. It’s our duty to assess people by their character early on if we want to have hope for our future. Before we tackle the big world problems discussed in class, we must make sure we’ve looked out for the people right in front of us.
Hala el Solh is a sophomore in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .