Going Salem on Social Space

“Puritanism,” defined the satirist-scholar Henry Mencken, “is the haunting belief that somewhere someone is happier than you.” We may have abandoned our founders’ captain hats and fetish for witchcraft, but destructive spite is alive and well at Harvard today.  We see it in recent tut-tutting as record numbers rush Greek organizations; in the characterization of final clubs as a cross between Mitt Romney’s rumpus room and an Eastern European brothel; in the description of the Crimson Key as “the perfect embodiment of pernicious social elitism” and the Hasty Pudding Club as “a once-secret society premised on ad-hoc partying.” Believe this, and you’d think modern Harvard students are most afraid that somewhere someone is having more fun than they are.

Social space is the fixation of this campus. Talked, written and griped over, everyone from the Dems to the Dins must have an on-record grievance about their lack of accommodation. Such a sustained groundswell of dissatisfaction—the naive might have assumed—would have resulted in solutions long ago. Yet, the discussion goes on. Why? Because too often our energy is wasted in pointless invective against what social provision does exist rather than spent in constructive dialogue.

If every selective social organization disbanded itself today, nobody’s social life would be improved tomorrow. Instead, for some, quite the opposite would happen. Nonetheless, it is clear that an incurably aggrieved minority would prefer that everyone have nothing than some have something. To achieve this they resort, consciously or unconsciously, to offensively reckless stereotyping. It is not right that by the mere merit of joining a final club or fraternity, our male colleagues should be harangued as racist, homophobic, sexually predatory, or worse. Their female counterparts are patronizingly depicted as clinging to the coat tails of imagined social androcentricity.

Are final clubs anti-women or sororities anti-men? Only in so much as these are structural aspects of their nature. To accuse them so is like accusing Harvard of being anti the unintelligent. Not a writer? This paper, laudable mouthpiece for the socially dissatisfied, nonetheless probably did not invite you to any of their closed-door parties recently either, despite possessing its own private social space. Are the qualities by which one enters a selective social organization like the Hasty Pudding Club any more arbitrarily assigned or gauged than those used to enter selective organizations based on “talent” such as the Signet or the Advocate? To say that all members of selective social organizations share your choice negative quality is as fallacious as saying that all Harvard students are elitists because our admission rate is 6.2 percent.

Students that criticize their peers for networking and social advancement ignore the fact that a Harvard education is an exercise in these very activities. By striving to be selected into the exclusive ranks of Harvard ahead of many other, perhaps equally deserving people, we are all guilty of no greater or lesser a sin than those who choose to join selective social organizations. They are like expressions of the human desire to get ahead and belong. Being thwarted in that desire is unpleasant, but it is the known risk in a game to which we have already all signed up.

It is also, in itself, an education. Life is unfair—this is one the most annoying, yet useful, of parental lessons. All but the least self-aware members of selective organizations realize their inclusion in those societies as opposed to anyone else’s is arbitrary. All but the least self-aware non-members should realize that their absence is similarly capricious. “If you constantly compare yourself with others,” warns Ehrmann’s “Desiderata,” “you will become vain and bitter, for always are there greater and lesser people than yourself.” Regardless of what clubs we were in at Harvard, all of us are ahead of the majority of people.

Some may think me a quisling, not being a member of any of the more controversial social organizations, but I know the twilight spaces of discomfort that our social status quo engenders well enough. At one point we all encounter the necessitated fishing for invitations, the anxiety of exclusion, and the tacit barriers between friends that our system creates. But we cannot be crabs in a bucket, clawing each other down. We should not overflow with vanity and bitterness, hypocritically attacking our peers for making difficult decisions we would probably make in their place anyway. Instead, critics of the social status quo should focus their energy on positive action and pressuring the administration, particularly on its prohibitive policies on alcohol and the languid schemes of the Office of Student Life.

In ten years’ time, whatever we do, this will matter little. In or out, the best lesson we can learn from Harvard’s broken social scene is the value of the clubs of privilege to which we already all belong.

Felix L. J. Cook' 13 is a government and literature concentrator in Quincy House.