The Politics of Fake Punch

In the fall of 2010, along with students who have since graduated, we began a campaign to alter the conversation about final clubs and to demand administrative acknowledgement of Harvard’s social space problem. Not the first campaign around these issues and hopefully not the last, we called ourselves the Final Club Campaign. We wanted this campaign to be what we hoped Harvard’s social scene could someday be—inclusive, full of diverse perspectives, and fun. Trying to meet these standards in the kick-off event of our campaign, we came up with the idea to door-drop “fake punch” letters to every Harvard student. The letters were invitations to a dialogue on final clubs and social space and described some of the attributes of clubs we found troubling: exclusivity, gender-segregation, and lack of transparency. Two years later, our campaign having died out, we find ourselves still troubled over final clubs and social space—and now frustrated by both the misguided “fake punch” letters of late and by Harvard’s inadequate response to them.

The flyers slipped under the doors of many students last week, inviting them to a punch event of the fictitious “Pigeon Club,” were not the start of a meaningful conversation about final clubs. Their creators’ poor grasp of the issues surrounding the clubs was evident in the flyers’ irreverent invocation of discrimination and date rape. The references in the flyers to anti-semitic policies, racial insensitivity, and date rape drugs may have been intended as attacks against final clubs, but in applying such generalized defamation, they merely caricatured the clubs and seriously undermined legitimate critiques of them.

Final clubs do have histories of exclusion of Jewish students and students of color, and many of us still find that final clubs fail at creating meaningful diversity on par with the makeup of the student body. Additionally, some final clubs do have histories related to sexual assault, and the issue of party safety has been repeatedly raised as a concern in campaigns like our own. However, the tone and offensive language of the Pigeon flyer made it easy to reject these truths as absurd or out of touch. What’s worse, we fear that this was the point. Whatever their creators’ intentions, they succeeded in making a spectacle but managed to bury the real issues at hand.

The impulse of students and administrators to disparage the offensive humor of the flyers—but to remain silent regarding the problems underlying that “crass” humor—was a familiar and disappointing avoidance. Appearing to raise the profile of final club issues, the flyers instead offered another distraction from substantive engagement with those issues.

The spirit of our 2010 Final Club Campaign was perhaps too idealistic and ambitious: to create dialogue across many perspectives, to challenge student apathy and defensiveness, and to push the administration towards greater responsibility for creating social space solutions. Our campaign ultimately failed, in part because it was going to require a lot more than dialogue and “fake punch” letters to shift such an entrenched status quo. But we maintain that “fake punching” has productive potential, whether done in service of an organized campaign or merely as a small counter-pressure to the dominant acceptance that if given the option, one should join a club. Our initial letters in 2010, along with similar letters with sincere “don’t punch” messages before and after, were distributed with the thought that, wherever you fall on the issue, it’s one worth discussing.

The Pigeon letter caused such vocal responses from students and administrators because it was easy to respond to. We all (hopefully) know to condemn overt anti-semitism, racism, and rape. But what we know less is how to respond to the complex problems that final clubs and other social spaces actually present us with at Harvard. We hope that we as students and administrators won’t be diverted by what was obvious here and will instead take this as a moment to examine the less glaring but persistent problems that continue to trouble us.

Jenny Ye ’13 is a computer science concentrator in Kirkland House. Camille S. Owens ’13 is a joint history and literature and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Pforzheimer House.