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Listening through Harvard residential housing’s razor-thin walls, a friend of mine, a freshman who we’ll call Sarah, was troubled by a conversation coming from the neighboring room. Referring to her boyfriend, a female voice proclaimed, “I like him, but I want to date an upperclassman that can get me into final club parties.” When Sarah confided to a friend that she was concerned by this sort of transactional attitude toward relationships, the friend abruptly told her to stop being so judgmental: “It is not your life, so it is none of your business.” In short, the friend judged Sarah for her judgment.
Sarah told me that she has encountered this “none-of-your-business” attitude incessantly since coming to Harvard. When she opines to her friends that corporate finance is a less honorable profession than the non-profit world or public service, she is jumped on for her heretical gall. When she questions the character of a friend who loves going to parties and mocks those who aren’t similarly inclined, she is branded a doctrinaire. Sarah’s defense of her ethical values is constantly rebuffed; in exercising her ideals through her opinions and actions, she feels alienated and ostracized by her peers.
When Sarah arrived at Harvard, she expected to be greeted by a deluge of passion, an array of people with rigid principles, admirable ambitions, and firm beliefs about what they wanted to do in life. Instead, Sarah was surprised by how rare such upstanding individuals seem to be. Sarah thinks that the wholesome passion these students gushed about in their Common App essays was either feigned, or transformed by the crushing social pressure to join the rat race of title-grabbing in lieu of making the world a better place. When Sarah tells fellow students that she aims to work in nonprofits in her hometown, she is contemptuously reminded that “there is no money in nonprofit work.” When Sarah does see her passion-filled classmates follow their dreams and succeed, she hears them perfunctorily dismissed as overly ambitious and undeserving of recognition.
Once, Sarah divulged to a peer that her life goal is to help others, and the peer bluntly advised her to “be a snake.” In a logical fallacy that would make Socrates blush, a peer proclaimed, “If you want to be successful, you need to be a snake. So if you are not a snake, you are doomed, and won’t be able to help anyone.”
What is a “snake?” According to Merriam-Webster, a snake is “a worthless or treacherous fellow,” and, according to Urban Dictionary, “a scamming backstabber.” At Harvard, I have heard the word thrown around more and more to describe people that feed off of classmates for problem set answers without offering anything in return, or skip a roommate’s birthday party for a final club event. To call someone a snake is a roaring insult, so to imagine that some people have justified their “snakery” by telling themselves it is necessary to thrive makes me shudder.
Not only is this behavior unethical, it's also rarely a winning strategy. In any game theory course, you learn that in a repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma game, it might be best to “defect” (or act selfishly) at first, but it quickly becomes much more beneficial to cooperate as the game goes on. This model translates nicely to real life.
For example, it might be better for you to do the minimal work in a group project and ride your group partners’ coattails to a good grade, but for the next group assignment, you can bet that your classmates won’t want to work with you. Moreover, by breaking your peers’ trust, your reputation as a bad group partner might spread to other areas of your life, and fewer people would be inclined to help you. Instead, by being reliable, your group partners, peers, friends, and even family will be much more likely to assist you, both in the classroom and in life. Beyond trustworthiness and kindness as virtuous, it seems that genuinely helping others can help you get ahead as well.
Even so, the snake ideology permeates Harvard’s campus, and because of its pervasiveness, it becomes very difficult to speak out against it. Those that truly come to Harvard with passion and principles are browbeaten into accepting others’ self-interest and double-dealing; if they judge this sordid behavior, they are judged for doing so. With all the talk of safe spaces, it might be that snakes, not liberals, are the most protected from dissent on this campus.
Most depressingly, Sarah tells me that she has already felt the effects of the snake-dominant culture change on her. Gaslighted by her peers, she is beginning to question her own ethical commitments. “Can I truly live on a non-profit salary?” “Is it wrong for me to judge my friend who made a furtive racist comment?” “Is the finance industry somehow ethically redeeming?” Sarah no longer expresses her ethical qualms out loud and is beginning to doubt whether she believes them herself.
When passion and principles are reviled, snakes can slither freely without reproach. While judgment clearly should remain within the bounds of respect, challenging the principles (or lack thereof) of our friends and peers when they treat others transactionally could put pressure on snakes to change their ways. To invigorate a communal and all-for-one spirit at Harvard, we must be not afraid to speak our ethics.
Reed T. Shafer-Ray ’18 is a Social Studies concentrator in Quincy House. Their column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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