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Tyranny of the Minority

By Maryanthe E. Malliaris

My first shopping week ever was a marathon. I attended more class hours in five days than I was required to attend in the entire remainder of the semester. I took notes in the classes I shopped, dog-eared the course catalogue most of the way through, sat through entire classes even after they started looking bad and spent a lot of time in the Coop reading books.

Most importantly, though, I asked around. Older friends, friends of older friends, roommates all had advice to give. Any class offered for more than a few years develops a reliable reputation, a strange mix of fact, opinion and hearsay that scales enrollment by factors of ten.

Grow older, grow wiser. Last Shopping Period I had everything down to a science. Master scanner of syllabi and shuffler of classes, I could tell within minutes whether a class was right for me. I'd absorbed enough departmental and extracurricular hearsay to pick classes practically before the lectures began.

But acquiring enough information about a class is rarely a matter of asking more people. Two, three, five opinions or off-hand remarks are usually a representative sample, even for large classes. This is because, I was surprised to find, there's not much dissention.

Ask around about a particular class and people who've never spoken will echo each other's assessments, sometimes even using the same phrases. How is it that 500 people in a lecture class independently come to the conclusion that "the lectures are archaic, the head TF sounds like Marge Simpson, the midterm was hard and the professor is brilliant but incomprehensible"?

Some things are obvious. By junior year, we've all got similar benchmarks. Everybody can tell whether the professor is organized or the reading is superfluous. But the diversity of opinion that exists during shopping week has shrunk, by the end of the semester, to a comfortable homogeneity. Is this a natural process? Or a strange kind of mob psychology?

After the first few sections, territory has been established, the discussions take on a certain character, sleep patterns solidify. Maybe the kid next to you in the baseball jacket complains to you after class and slowly, you notice, class isn't as great as you thought. Maybe your whole tutorial is fascinated by Celtic poetry and you find yourself looking forward weekly meetings despite yourself. Where does the consensus come from? It's all in the details: an off-hand remark that someone makes, a perfect characterization, the collective curve-setting on the midterm. Slowly, the class opinion converges to a mean.

Though the mean's characteristic, it may not be fair. Occasionally I've been surprised to find a required class with a bad reputation quite enjoyable. The problem is not that bad reputations are acquired too hastily and good ones take time--nothing is so easy. Instead it seems that fair and unfair reputations are results of the same process, the same sets of intuition, reaction and details.

Clearly this goes beyond picking classes. Regardless of the logic involved, decisions of allegiance (which class to take, which group to support, which opinion to have) are largely intuitive, a strange mix of thinking for ourselves and absorbing other thinking we trust. It's innocuous enough on the level of which Lit and Arts B core you eventually take, but the ways in which reputations are acquired become much more serious with more serious consequences.

Step out a level. Consider the Independent's recent (Feb 3) cover article on "Maoists Among Us," a nominally investigative report on the Maoist International Movement (M.I.M.). Writers Judy Kwok and Alex Nyren's main lead is a Harvard student studying abroad, Frances Chang, who cites an unnamed source: "A Chinese friend of mine didn't know exactly how Mao was involved in the Cultural Revolution, but she resolutely stated that it and the Great Leap Forward were traumatic experiences for China." Thus, the article concludes, the M.I.M. is "nothing more than a group of people ignorant of Chinese modern history." Of course, the same might be said for the unnamed source.

I am no expert on the international Maoists but I can recognize less-than-thorough journalism. There is certainly much to be said for and against the Maoist International Movement, but most of it is not reported in the article.

Interestingly enough, the authors seem to feel this is no detriment to the article's credibility. Perhaps this is not surprising. After all, drawing a line between good journalism and hearsay, it is probably fair to say that most people make their real-life decisions based on hearsay.

Closer to home is a remark which surfaced in the wake of the recent UC election fiasco as Crimson writer Parker Conrad interviewed ex-candidate Leonard about the petition brought against John Burton. Conrad quotes Leonard as saying that "John Burton epitomizes everything the average student hates about the council." What gives Leonard the right to speak for 'the average student,' and with such vehemence? Is it all right if we corroborate? Or all right if we do not dissent?

There are cases all around us of individuals speaking for groups and of groups coming to the consensus of individuals. Consider the stand the E.U. is taking against Austria and the dominos that have fallen since the U.S. ambassador withdrew. I don't mean to hold argumentative, individualist logic on a high plane above consensus. Intuition can be a great help in situations where the facts are dubious.

But I am worried that we can't pinpoint this beginning: the first labeling, the first frown, the first parody. The snowballing effect of reputation has a tremendous power to shape future endeavor. It is the power of junior high school popularity contests and the subtle consensus of entire disciplines, the power of suggestion and the slow crafting of taste. It remains to be seen whether it is possible to separate out the crucible where opinion is formed, to shape the sways of reputation, to find the voice speaking for all of you

Maryanthe E. Malliaris '01 is a mathematics concentrator in Lowell House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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