Two weeks ago, I announced a campaign for Yale College Council President. I lost to Saloni Rao, an individual who I am confident will do great things for our university. I entered the race to improve the dialogue in these YCC campaigns, and I stand behind what we accomplished. But, this piece is about something entirely different.
There is something overtly wrong at our school, but so commonplace that we no longer bat an eye at it. It’s about what we say in dining halls, in coffee shops, in the gym to the person on the next treadmill. Russians call it propaganda. Trump calls it fake news. In years to come, textbooks might call it sensationalism. Here at Yale, we call it activism.
This school has become a breeding ground for false narratives, pushed forth to justify whatever activist agenda we choose to pursue. How do these narratives get spread? That’s the worst part. We ourselves play the part of the Russians in a manner that is scaringly similar to the retweeting, unthinking bots of the 2016 election. These false and misleading narratives, however, only serve to cripple the advocacy they try to promote.
Let’s look at the some examples from the past week:
Last week, members of Students Unite Now launched a sit-in in at the Office of Financial Aid, demanding the elimination of the student income contribution. I am opposed to the student income contribution, and I ran during my YCC campaign on establishing a 501(c)(3) to fund its reduction — a promise I do intend to still keep. But this organization all too often misleads to the detriment of what they are advocating for. For instance, their website points to frequent budget surpluses and endowment gains of the University and purports that, “Yale has continued to impose higher and higher financial demands on students who receive financial aid by increasing the contribution it expects these students to pay.” To state that the University has increased the student income contribution in recent years is factually inaccurate. To suggest that individual budget surpluses would enable the elimination of the contribution ignores how the University’s budgeting actually works. Misleading on the issue plays right into the administration’s hands.
This week, the News published a piece that focused partially on Yale administrator Dean Burgwell Howard. Engender, an organization dedicated to improving social spaces, immediately issued a Facebook post: “Did you know that Yale’s administrator responsible for overseeing Greek organizations was in a fraternity suspended at Dartmouth for referring to women as ‘sperm receptacles’?” The incident they were referring to occurred nearly two years after the administrator graduated from the school. To defame his reputation based on tangential associations is nothing more than a red herring. At the beginning of this school year, the same organization passed out a flyer stating, “[Leo] Fraternity members discriminated against students of color at the door of their party, publicly declaring that ‘white girls only’ were allowed entrance.” With respect to the incident they reference, however, the Yale Dean’s office found no evidence of ‘systematic discrimination against people of color.’ To pass off conjecture as fact is dangerous and a disservice to the very real issues Engender is advocating for.
During the Yale College Council debate, Saloni Rao and I responded ‘no’ to a rapid-fire question of whether institutional racism at Yale exists. The ‘activists’ pounced, turning to ‘Overhead at Yale’ to highlight our answer to the question. In response, I published my personal phone number on the thread and texts immediately poured in. One I received suggested that my entire campaign was “reminiscent of the white savior complex.” Another person suggested I was like Donald Trump — it seems for no other reason than my answer during the debate and the fact that my campaign slogan had the same number of syllables as “drain the swamp.” And another directly implied I was racist. It was not uncommon to hear in dining halls the following days that we believed racism did not exist or had no respect for the cultural houses at this school. To suggest either is obviously false. To imply racism is absurd. And to do so only distracts from important conversations on an issue that is too often overlooked.
We are quick to deride the Trumpian era of fake news and sensationalism. But, we fail to see it at our own school. When untruths and conjectures get passed off as facts, we fall into dangerous territory. To Engender, Students Unite Now and other activist organizations at this school: To distract with false narratives spoils any chance of change. You can do better. In 2016, Russians destabilized our democracy by pushing forth untrue narratives. In spreading conjecture and passing false narratives off as truths, we’re not much better.
Christopher Moeckel is a sophomore in Saybrook College and a former candidate for YCC president. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Correction, April 25: A previous version of this column incorrectly stated that Howard’s fraternity at Dartmouth University was suspended a decade after his graduation. In fact, the suspension occurred two years after Howard graduated.