What could be more traditional than secret societies at Yale? Decrying societies in the Yale Daily News.
A search through the archives reveals that people make the same arguments every year: Societies are elitist. Aristocratic. Anti-democratic. They take up too much time — and real estate. They’re not for everyone. They don’t matter.
We’re rightly bothered by the potential damage wrought by such exclusivity. Every year, for example, a handful of juniors — those who didn’t join enough major extracurriculars, didn’t meet enough seniors or just weren’t ‘good enough,’ whatever that means — don’t receive a single letter inviting them to take part in the society interview process.
Last spring, that was me.
At the time, I thought I was worthless. To know that my endeavors, no matter how hard I had worked, went completely unnoticed by my peers was disappointing. And to see most of my closest friends dance around telling me directly about their taps and interviews and decisions — a process in which I hadn’t been deemed worthy of partaking — made it all the more depressing.
So shouldn’t I fall in line and be against societies? Shouldn’t I call out the hypocrisy of the current and future crop of society members for praising egalitarianism on the one hand and supporting Yale’s most aristocratic tradition on the other?
Probably, but I won’t. Instead, I think it’s more productive to reconsider the two most desirable parts of the society experience and their role in campus discourse: selection and biographies.
Even if we plan on ripping up any wax-sealed letters slipped under our door — “Join a society? I’d never!” — we can’t ignore the deep desire that most of us have to be considered ‘worthy’ of the choice. Those who reject societies still want the formal chance to reject them. For others, there’s the Yale Society Initiative, an administrative attempt to make societies more egalitarian through an application process. But everyone knows that it pales in comparison to the experience of being selected.
That feeling of wanting to be ‘noticed’ underlies our basic human need for belonging. We don’t fill out application forms to make friends or be accepted by our family, instead cultivating mutual understanding naturally through devotion and care. You belong to your friends as long as they know and want you; you belong to your family just by being you.
Not getting a society ‘tap,’ no matter how arbitrary the process is, seems to mean that “just being you” isn’t enough. You’re still a Yalie, but you’re on the fringe. For some reason, you’re not good enough to be wanted. And no matter how ridiculous or false that thought is, it still feels terrible. I know from friends who have joined a YSI society that they all have trouble dropping the nagging feeling that they weren’t ‘selected.’ Likewise, my friends who have enjoyed their society experience are comfortable (whether they say it or not) knowing that their group was chosen.
Usually, this problem is tackled through increased equality — new societies are formed and YSI expands. I know that seniors running tap right now are conscious of the problems inherent in an exclusive process, and I applaud them for trying hard to expand the networks of people they tap.
But more equality can never solve an aristocratic problem. If all juniors were given the chance to interview, the allure of society would fade and societies would lose their power on campus — and on our imagination. Unfortunately, they are one of the last remaining places at Yale where students of different backgrounds devote significant time toward deliberate self-reflection. Our dining halls and common rooms often decline into spaces solely for trading academic, professional and social woes. As increasing numbers of upperclassmen move off campus and drop meal plans, serendipitous camaraderie in residential colleges wanes. Anyone can recognize the attraction of being asked to trade life stories with others deemed kind, thoughtful and respectful.
Which means that those lucky enough to participate in this backward yet beautiful tradition of lingering should take on an extra responsibility in their last year at Yale: Don’t hide your society experience from your friends who were left out.
I’ve sat through too many suite dinners and casual conversations with friends in society who describe the strange, special ritual of delivering ‘bios’ with sidelong glances. But not once have I heard of any natural desire to share stories between friends, including my closest suitemates, without the glamorous institutions of society.
Then how do members solve the society problem? Don’t just talk around us — use your (apparently) highly developed social prowess to let us share our stories, too. Far too often we only gloss over our lives in conversations at Yale. Many of us lose out on probing into our experiences in the way that members of societies are given time and space to do. We can endlessly proclaim the importance of understanding diverse and individual backgrounds, but we hardly ever devote time to actually making those conversations happen. Do we really need the pomp and circumstance of a society to understand each other deeply and meaningfully?
So, to society-goers and rejects alike, I officially invite you to share your stories with me at the Anti-Society Club. I should admit, however, that the time commitment is intense: It can meet at every meal, in every common room, on every walk across cross campus, in the library or in the hallway after class. Fortunately, the club’s creed is simple:
You don’t need to be a Bonesman to have a bio (all it truly takes is human biology), but you need others to be curious about your secrets to form a society. Challenge yourself to make Yale more than just a society of friends — make it a society of friendship.
Leland Stange is a senior in Ezra Stiles College. His column runs every other Friday. Contact him at email@example.com.