When I wrote Abolish Yale, I pissed a lot of people off. One critique stood out to me in particular, though. It was that I, as a Yale student actively benefiting from the exploitative actions of the University, am a hypocrite for criticizing those exploitative actions and that to resolve that hypocrisy I should leave the University. The argument is an interesting one in that it implies that my hypocrisy discredits my argument and any action I would take in protest of the University. And it’s led me to think about the hypocrisy of activism coming from Yale’s students.
This is an idea I’ve been wrestling with since I stepped foot on campus. In my second ever column for the YDN, I lamented how “My presence as a student, much like the rest of my Yale peers, gives this ancient institution life and power and conflicts with my goal to help disadvantaged communities.” I felt that this hypocrisy, this complicity in hurting people, discredited my desire to make the world a better place. And yet, I knew that I couldn’t just leave Yale. I knew that the world still ran on power and status and that Yale was the ultimate status symbol. So leaving Yale in an effort to maintain moral consistency would be akin to acting as “one small drop of water pushing against a wave of entrenched convictions about higher education.” So what should I do about this hypocrisy?
My resolution was to simply “strive to come out on the positive side of our moral equations,” to spend my life striving to do good and not worry too much about my moral culpability in perpetuating harm. Reflecting on that idea, it now feels unsatisfactory.
There’s a tendency on this campus to lean into those sorts of tidy solutions to moral conundrums, to think deeply about how we fail to live up to our stated beliefs but then to either box the conversation up and store it away or chalk up our moral failings to humans’ inherently flawed nature in order to assuage our guilt. For most things in life, the impacts of this moral evasion are relatively benign — if I commit to working out, for example, and then skip the gym, I’m not really harming anyone except myself. But failing to live up to our values and evading personal accountability for that failure can really hurt people.
It’s moral evasion that allows Yalies to join tons of community organizations in New Haven and then abandon them –– dropping projects, skipping meetings and ghosting those organizations –– as soon as the work becomes uninteresting or a more exciting extracurricular activity comes along. It’s the sort of evasion that gives rise to lines like “I can change McKinsey from the inside!” It’s the sort of evasion that allows white liberals to chant Black Lives Matter while begging for increased YPD presence on campus.
This is not to condescend. I’m just as guilty of hypocrisy as you are. This is also not to say that we should spend our lives striving for moral perfection –– it’s an impossible goal, one that will immobilize us and keep us from taking any action at all. But this is to point out how our dishonesty, inconsistency and moral slippage fails others. It is to show that when we do this sort of unsubstantial moral posturing, we dilute the meaning of the values we claim to hold. And when we dilute the meaning of those values, we undermine the credibility of our activism. We allow ourselves to skirt accountability and that keeps us from pursuing meaningful change.
This isn’t a call to change all of your actions so that they align with your values either, because there are material conditions that often prevent us from living up to our values. I might very well want to work as an organizer, but I might also choose to go into consulting because I need to pay my bills. That’s the sort of thing that can’t be easily resolved. Instead, I am asking that we stop trying to absolve ourselves from our hypocrisies by minimizing or dismissing them.
I am asking that, if we are going to be hypocritical, we acknowledge our hypocrisy and learn to live with the harm that it may cause.
CALEB DUNSON is a sophomore in Saybrook college. His column, titled ‘What We Owe’, runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at email@example.com.