​Fighting the Shadow Social Environment

When a college built on exclusion declares war against exclusivity

If you’ve ever played the Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time on the Nintendo 64, you know the hardest part of the game is fighting Shadow Link. Allow me to set the scene: In this classic fantasy adventure video game, you play as Link, the Hero of Time, who saves Princess Zelda from evil Lord Ganondorf. You have to solve absurdly intricate puzzles and fight endless creepy foes—the worst of which is Shadow Link, your dark evil-twin-mini-boss lurking in the dreaded Water Temple. Shadow Link is nearly impossible to defeat because he fights exactly like you do. He parries every sword strike, mercilessly slices every exposed sliver of digitized flesh, and laughs that maddening electronic cackle every time you die. (The “Game Over” jingle still gives me nightmares.) Shadow Link is the hardest enemy of the game because no one knows how to fight himself.

No one, that is, except Harvard. In her recent op-ed, University President Drew G. Faust denounced the “shadow social environment” created by the College’s “discriminatory and exclusionary organizations” such as final clubs, fraternities, and sororities. The Crimson Editorial Board recently joined Faust in this stand against exclusivity, arguing that such groups perpetrate “outdated notions of elitism, classism, and exclusivity on campus.” These arguments, gleaming in the heroic rhetoric of inclusivity, try to pit Harvard the Hero of Time against his evil enemy, Shadow Social Environment. But no matter how loudly we claim to stand against exclusivity, the truth is that Harvard’s undergraduate culture is still pervaded by it. The administration’s social group-banning sword strikes and community-promoting spin moves are bound to fail—because the exclusive shadow Harvard is fighting against is really itself.

Exclusivity saturates student social life, and for better or worse, it permeates far beyond unrecognized single-gender social organizations. Take the notorious Harvard “comp.” To participate in nearly any extracurricular organization, students must first jostle through a series of admission requirements termed the “comp”—originally for “competence,” but more realistically for “competition.” From auditions and call-backs to interviews and writing quotas, Harvard undergraduates must win their spot in the social sphere by excluding someone else from doing the same. After competing for admission, Harvard students must compete for community. By no means are these groups the only way to find friends or pursue interests on campus, but the opportunity to develop skills, practice leadership, and win prestige certainly makes them the most desirable way of doing so.


So as Faust tackles USGSOs to defend “the ideals of inclusion against the incursions of discrimination and exclusion in student life,” and as The Crimson Editorial Board urges Harvard to “ensure that student organizations do not further perpetuate exclusivity,” the comp’s fight for membership continues to weed out willing participants with the very “rules and processes of discrimination and exclusion” that Faust claims to condemn in her op-ed.

This pervasive exclusivity doesn’t stop with comps. From political groups and religious clubs, to all-black commencement celebrations and Fuerza Latina, Harvard is dominated, as Faust puts it, “by organizations that divide students into groups of like-minded individuals.” This isn’t to say “comping” or homogenized student groups are good or bad—it’s to say that Harvard can’t fight exclusivity in USGSOs while pretending exclusion doesn’t saturate other major areas of student life. For good or for evil, exclusivity orders the College’s social scene. Harvard’s Journey toward Inclusion seems like it’s doomed for an endless repeat of “Game Over.”


But is it really surprising that a school with one of the lowest historical acceptance rates, with a meme page (explicitly if ironically intended) for Elitist 1% Tweens, has an exclusive social environment?

The far more interesting question is whether or not it should.

In preaching that total inclusion is necessary to build “the Harvard community,” the administration forgets that exclusion, to some degree, is necessary for any community at all. A group self-identifies as much by who is not a member as who is, and the most rewarding, supportive community often comes from “groups of like-minded individuals” who share passions, beliefs, and interests. How did the Harvard community form in the first place? By rejecting 95 percent of the people who wanted to join it. How does the College build house camaraderie on Thursday “community nights”? By excluding anyone who’s not a house resident from eating in a given dining hall. Some degree of exclusion is necessary for community. Eliminating all exclusivity in the name of community is like throwing Princess Zelda out the tower window to save her from Ganondorf.

Given our campus culture, it’s unrealistic to think we’ll achieve unblemished inclusivity, and given the nature of community, it’d be undesirable to do so in the first place. But assuming all exclusivity is good is just as mistaken as assuming all exclusivity is bad. The Lampoon, a semi-secret Sorrento Square social organization that used to occasionally publish a so-called humor magazine, may rightly reject applicants who don’t have the right sense of humor, but Harvard admissions can’t fairly reject applicants on the same grounds. The standard—based on jokes or grades—should meritocratically fit the purpose of the community doing the excluding, with equal opportunity for willing applicants to participate and, if excluded, to find or form another community. (Whether it’s the College’s place to winnow out the bad exclusivity from the good is another matter.)

After hours of hand cramps and maddening “Game Over” jingles, the Hero of Time finally defeats Shadow Link—in my case at least—by spamming him with a new magic spell. The College needs a similarly new strategy to end its fight with Shadow Social Environment. Until Harvard’s students, for better or for worse, take up arms against the culture of exclusion, the College, by standing against exclusivity, will remain deadlocked in a fight against itself.

Lauren D. Spohn ’20 is a Crimson Editorial editor in Currier House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.


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