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You are Better than Punch

The allure of “exclusivity” blinds us to its negative consequences

By Reed E. McConnell

Exclusive organizations at Harvard are omnipresent, loud, and anxious to make themselves visible. If it is a day of the week that ends with y, chances are you will run into someone (or two people, or three) wearing a pullover with a giant Pegasus emblazoned across the front. And if it’s the weekend (no matter the time of day), you can probably expect to find the final clubs blaring music so loud that you can hear it across campus. But, despite their ostentatious self-presentation, the membership of these organizations actually comprises a very small percentage of the student body. Only about 15 percent of the student body is in final clubs, and all indications are that exclusive publications like the Advocate and the Lampoon—though statistics are unavailable—accept small numbers.

So with such a small part of the student body as members, why do we pay these groups so much attention?

As for the publications, the Lampoon doesn’t actually produce a humor magazine, and in my experience the Advocate is not widely read on campus. I would argue that the reputations these organizations have for exclusivity precede their content. We know about them simply because they want to make themselves known as something desirable solely for its unreachability.

Final clubs run along the same lines, except they don’t even have magazines to point to as their nominal purpose. Being chosen for a final club is not an indicator of skill or ability. It simply means that the person in question was able to perform “cultured” and “wealthy” well enough that a group of—on the large part—vastly privileged people decided they were worthy of being in their exclusive friend group.

We live in a society where money privilege (and other kinds of class privilege) is seen as a large indicator of worth. We are taught to be ashamed of poverty, ashamed of not knowing certain words, ashamed of having certain accents, and ashamed of not having had access to certain kinds of experiences.

Part of the draw of the clubs comes from the fact that they’re seen as an almost reachable form of money privilege, since acceptance into one of them is seen as improbable but not impossible. And the not-impossibility tells us that maybe if we are friendly enough, or meet enough of the right people, we’ll be able to get in! But this is largely an illusion.  Yet, as long as it is seen as a possibility, not getting punched (or getting punched and not being accepted) seems like a failure, an indication that you’ve done something wrong: not been socially likeable enough, not dressed nicely enough, not talked well enough.

But no one has the right to determine your adequacy based upon these factors. No one. Just because certain fellow students were raised with certain kinds of arts training, in certain linguistic registers, with certain kinds of social capital that taught them how to tell the difference between an oyster fork and a non-oyster fork does not mean that these people are in any way above you. It does not mean that they have the right to assess you, and it does not mean that you should feel at all indebted to them. Whether you were punched, or not, whether you know people in these clubs, or not, says exactly zero about your worth, potential and future.

By choosing to punch, you are reinforcing and legitimizing this system of shame, where people are made to feel inadequate and ashamed solely by dint of being poor, of color, queer, or a whole host of other things that don’t fit with the socially reinforced norm of being a wealthy white straight man. This is a system that exists to make clear that some are wealthy and some are not, some learned to talk a certain way at Dalton and some did not, and to make even more spatial and entrenched the socioeconomic inequalities in our school. This is a system that gives only men full access to eight of the most prime pieces of real estate on campus, and a system that has historically marginalized LGBTQ folk and people of color.

But the second we are able to collectively convince ourselves that being able to perform “wealthy” and cultured” are not necessarily things we want to be aiming toward, and that getting to be a part of something solely because another is excluded, is not in and of itself an appealing thing and, instead, unappealing in its inadequacy-making nature, we are closer to stripping these groups of a lot of their power. We need a sea change, and that will only come as the sum of small acts of resistance.

So if you were punched, don’t punch. Choose against punch because you respect your fellow students and want to see a community where people are valued, instead of constantly judged because of their ethnicity, sexuality, and (lack of) wealth.

And if you weren’t punched by a club, congratulations! You aren’t any worse off by not being a part of one. You are a Harvard student, and you have the world, in all of its infinite iterations, at your fingertips.

Reed McConnell ’15 is a Social Anthropology and Germanic languages and literatures concentrator in Quincy House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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