Toward the beginning of this spring, I became increasingly intrigued by notes slipped under my door. Initially skeptical, I thought that I might have been prematurely judging an experience without giving it a chance. So last Thursday, I walked to an unknown location blindfolded. When it was finally removed, I found myself in the basement of a tomb. The place was revealed to us, for us.
I was overwhelmed. In this moment, I began to process that buildings like these existed across campus, buildings that housed private chefs, libraries and groups of “chosen ones.” I tried to make small talk with people, but it wasn’t long before I walked up to a friend and said “I don’t think this is for me.” I couldn’t hold back my tears any longer.
Was my visceral reaction one of social anxiety in a hypersocial space? This just isn’t the scene for an introverted person, I thought. I left. But the next day, I ran into people around campus whom I had seen in that basement and felt some connectedness to them. I felt a desire to get to know them better. I wondered: Are these the ways through which Yale’s creepy society culture psychologizes us to humanize its existence? I knew that the answer was yes.
It was far easier for me to believe that this specific society wasn’t for me because its pre-tap was social in a way that I didn’t vibe with. It was much harder to recognize that I was letting myself get swept up by a wave of a system that represented everything my parents raised me to question, that any good liberal education would have us question.
Is it OK that so many of my friends who feel weird about society want to do it anyway? Why do we feel so powerless here? Is it okay that so many of my friends who are incredible are made to feel bad about not being tapped? I’ve spent a lot of nights listening to the complex reasons folks opt into this system, but societies, especially landed ones, exist as so much more than a way to get to know new people you would have never otherwise met senior year.
Why do I feel so guilty for declining opportunities offered to me? Is this how institutional power gets me to value access to eliteness more than my peace? Why do we keep using troubled means to justify ends that don’t even exist? Yale’s society culture is a way for students to keep pushing power and social hierarchy onto one another; it’s normalizing pernicious patterns of thought among some of the most compassionate minds I know. We believe benefiting ourselves is something we have to do at the expense of stepping on others. It deludes us into thinking that what we contribute hinges on external determination, or that our presence in a toxic space as x-y-z identity is better than the presence of one who isn’t aware of their white privilege. At the end, it makes it all worth it because at least we forged relationships. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in my time here, it’s that it is deeply misguided for us to not be suspicious of the ways in which we all are human and susceptible to the power and privilege inherent to these spaces.
I know others have disapproved before me. Zulfiqar Mannan ’20 wrote brilliantly on power and societies months ago, for instance. I know people who have removed themselves from the society process entirely and have had conversations with juniors and seniors who feel just as bad by how we collectively forget how bizarre this all is. Still, year after year, kind and smart people keep joining landed societies. I’m writing this because when there’s discomfort, it ought to be screamed rather than culturally suppressed. We often curb this conversation through claims that there are bigger fish to fry than the ethics of society, but why do we try to address world issues without also caring about how we make each other feel in our communities? I am concerned with our mass reluctance to link societies’ hold on exclusivity with other issues of the moment like the neglect of the Ethnicity, Race & Migration Program and the creation of the Jackson School of Global Affairs or the admissions scandal or herds of Yalies systematically joining consulting and finance?
We shouldn’t laugh off questioning the ethics of societies. Further, we should imagine how we can make this campus better for all its students. This isn’t moral superiority masturbation. Not a day goes by that I am not grateful to be at Yale, but this does not mean absolution from challenging how we take part in perpetuating complicity.
If there’s one thing I can say to the class of 2020, it’s that our choices have impacts on one another and on ourselves. We aren’t “making it” by entering these structures that maintain an allure of exclusion and eliteness. We will make it when we leave them empty without ways to humanize themselves, freeing us from the subtle ways in which we tokenize our own conscience. It’s been 200 years, and I don’t think I’m okay with waiting for the “Ancient Eight” to debate themselves out of existence from the inside. I hope you won’t be either.
Sana Aslam is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .