It was just past midnight, the first night of finals period. Bass Library was electric. The seal of silence had broken as students cleared a path through the mezzanine, equal parts anticipation and secondhand embarrassment. With a wave of screams, cheers and plodding feet, they arrived: a mass of naked students tumbling through the library like a ticker-tape parade. Appendages flew in every direction, phalli flapping, hands clapping, bosoms and bottoms abound.
The naked run is a controversial decades-old tradition at Yale with a problematic past. And yet, amidst the ridiculousness is a promising future. The naked run — entertaining the absurdity — exemplifies what Yale is all about. It exposes how, against the swelling tide of digital media and technology that make us fear what the world might see of us, we can make Yale better.
Let’s be honest, the naked run is silly. Sure, it is a symbol of bodily liberation and youth and provides a little light in the darkness of finals week. As a society, we still have so far to go to normalize and love our bodies au naturel. But the run is a bunch of naked people flopping around while everyone cheers. By definition, that’s silly. And that’s the point.
The naked run is a ridiculous tradition that can continue because of the coordination, safety and privacy set forth by its organizers. We need to create more spaces similarly designated as exempt from online exposure and constant documentation. Spaces to explore, to get it wrong, to embrace the absolutely ridiculous — even the compromising — without having to worry about it haunting us forever.
Before you confuse me for some golden-years-shenanigans-yearning reactionary, let me make something clear. This is not a call to action for incubators of hate or prejudice. Creating pockets of fun and exploration is never an excuse to use the isolation of those spaces to harm those within them.
Moreover, these spaces must take special care to not impose on people who don’t want to participate. This is something that the naked run has been criticized for — notably in a column in the News in 2016 that claimed that the event was a form of sexual harassment — and it’s something that current organizers of the run have taken very seriously.
“We coordinate with the library staff and security, so they all know it’s happening,” the run’s coordinators told me in a joint email. “[Library security] makes an announcement over the loudspeakers in both Bass and Sterling before the run happens so people have the chance to leave. We also have members on security in all the rooms that make additional announcements about the run, and tell everyone that absolutely no phones are allowed during the run,” they told me. The heavy consequences for taking out your phone were repeated no fewer than 10 times. And coordinators and library staff made abundantly clear what was about to happen to give people a chance to leave. Even when things are silly in spirit, for the safety of all involved, we have to take them seriously.
See, I doubt that anyone would consciously decide to share a photo of a classmate barrelling naked through a library in order to ruin their lives. It’s just that gut reaction that we’ve grown so accustomed to — “this is cool, this is novel; therefore, I must share” — that does it. Rarely do we think of the consequences of sharing.
So let’s look beyond the bobbing buttocks of Bass for a moment and look at the world we live in. We live in an age of unprecedented surveillance, of digital tyranny.
And as Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff argues in her 2018 book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism,” this tyranny is almost invisible even as the age of big data “claims human experience as free raw material for hidden commercial practices of extraction, prediction, and sales… [and] asserts dominance over society and presents startling challenges to market democracy.” But worse than invisible — the tyranny of surveillance is seductive.
We live in a time in which the human experience is being mapped and mined as an infinite resource to be exploited, especially here at Yale. Duo Mobile knows where you’ve been. CourseTable lets you see all your friends also shopping the classes you want to take. Those weird “YALE GRADUATES GET FREE DENTAL CLEANING” Facebooks ads (I can’t be the only one who gets those, right?) know that we haven’t brushed our teeth in weeks. Soon enough, Kate Krier won’t have to ask what you’re doing this weekend. She’ll already know.
The suppression of the desire to take risks on campus is less so the result of those around us and more so the result of the institutions that govern our lives thereafter. We’re afraid of putting a single opinion online, or even having our name on the roster of a dissident club or our faces pictured at a protest lest our future employers see it. I don’t think Goldman wants to see a picture of you naked in Bass, and you don’t want them to see either.
Even then, I’m sure participation would evaporate if even a list of runners’ names was available online, even though there’s nothing wrong with participating. Even organizers with whom I spoke asked that I didn’t name them — I’m sure partly because the event is secret by design and also because “Naked Run Organizer” doesn’t exactly shine on a resume. Even writing an article about it feels like a bad decision, and yet here I am.
A constantly public life can be paralyzing, especially because each individual onlooker is free to interpret, misinterpret, essentialize and demonize anyone and anything they please. We are young by definition and stupid by condition. The world around us preys on and profits off our gaffes, our footprints, our humanness. We have a right to get it wrong.
After all, we’re here to get it wrong. We’re here to experiment with ideas and careers and subjects and people. We’re here to try new things, to bloom and construct who we want to be. Big data and employers, they know us before we can even know us. They construct versions of us out of our digital identities decades before we as humans are even fully-constructed. Truth and light can hardly flourish when everything you do or say can be used against you in a court of law, forever. We need more spaces like the Bass run, spaces where our minds, spirits, emotions and, yes, sometimes bodies, can be naked.
Doesn’t all this Orwellian nonsense make you mad? Doesn’t it make you want to rebel, to do something absolutely wild, something like running from the top of the stacks through Bass while your colleagues cheer you on? Well, you’re in luck — that just might be the answer.
ERIC KREBS is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. His columns run on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .