Social phagocytosis


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I’m writing issue #3 on unceded Massachusett and Pawtucket lands. (Find out where you are here, and why land acknowledgements are important here.)

A close friend of mine texted me the above late one night, and prompted a lengthy conversation about how people use their time, energy, and resources. Our conversation was Harvard-specific, and while that was our frame of reference, I’m going to try to broaden the discussion here to our larger cultural moment — the issues Harvard students face and perpetuate are not unique to them. Though I think that Harvard culture is like the one we all live in, it probably takes its defining characteristics to an extreme. This is not to say that this kind suffering from these on-campus issues is worse — to say that is reductive and privileged.

My friend was commenting on the wide range of activities one can participate in, many of which have nearly identical missions and goals, but which are bifurcated into many different exclusive clubs and organizations with their own high barriers to entry. As anyone who has tried to join the Harvard College Consulting Group (or another groups on campus) will tell you, “getting in” goes past the interview and case study stage — there’s usually a semester-long probationary period that tests you to see if you’ll actually make it as a permanent member.

This phenomenon means that you’re performing your interest to please current members, which means being available at all hours for anything (you have to show you’re dedicated!), as well as trying to one-up your fellow compers (Harvard lingo for people in the process of joining a club).

The multitude of clubs like the ones above on campus pose two issues, one of which is more concerning than the other.

First: anything having to do with Model UN, as an example, has a similar mission. In one way or another, students participate in Model UN-style activities. Which is fine, but the sheer number of clubs all doing the same thing begs the question of why there are so many to begin with.

Part of it, my friend and I decided, generally has to do with the pervasiveness of startup culture. (Which, even if you’re not a part of it, propagates a mentality that is everywhere.) By which I mean, why join an existing club that has barriers to entry, or is highly socially exclusive, when you can start your own thing, erect your own arbitrary barriers, and put it on your resume with the title of “Founder”?

Of course, “startup mentality” is kind of the world we live in. We do everything on our own, are afraid to ask for help, and take on more projects and work to stay afloat or to prove to others that we’re important and valuable. 

And yet, when people write their acknowledgements at the backs of books, they preface them by saying something like “They say it takes a village, and that turned out to be true.” Many, if not all, endeavors worth doing take the encouragement, love, help, and care of others. The fractured landscape of clubs that do similar things, but which all act independently is a testament to Harvard students’ pathological desire for exclusivity, prestige, and singularity. 

I don’t recuse myself from this environment at all — I’m sure there are ways that I have kept this culture alive, even though I spend a lot of energy telling myself that there is a world outside a bubble like this, and that it is possible (and necessary!) to find meaning in ways that don’t require applications, interviews, competing with others, and insular organizational mentalities.

The second problem this club landscape presents is actually intimately linked to their multitude: there are so many things to do and join that students, even those who belong to one or two organizations, inevitably become part of that org’s ecosystem. It’s the club version of phagocytosis: you pretty much get absorbed whole. 

My friend put this a lot more succinctly than I probably could have.

If you’re not part of the Harvard ecosystem (which, I assure you, is not a bad thing!), or even if you’re part of it, perhaps you’re wondering why the above screenshot is true. 

If you think about it, though, having your whole life revolve around a club makes a lot of sense: after enduring an interview, a writing sample, a case study, an entire semester of probationary activities, invitations to exclusive formals and dorm parties — why wouldn’t you choose to spend most of your hours either creating more club activities or hanging out with the same people all the time? (Not that H students really “hang out” casually — that’s a generous term.)

This environment leads to statements like this one: “Never once have I spontaneously done anything fun at Harvard. It was all pre-planned.” I myself have probably said some variation of this, and it makes me incredibly sad that I did so. 

The large fundamental issue I have with this culture — again, not Harvard-specific, but certainly an outsized form of it — is that we schedule most parts of our lives. Of course, this issue has gotten worse with zoom, given that a spontaneous zoom call sounds like one definition of hell. 

But the over-scheduling phenomenon was present before! We’re on calls, running to meetings, scheduling meals, fitting in time to see people for 30 minutes before heading off again, penciling in time to hang out. Socializing within a club inherently means that there’s always a tinge of “work” to it. There’s always some notion of performativity that comes from being aware that while these people might be your friends, you’re first and foremost in this organization that has a purpose™ to it.

And yet, the best moments of on-campus college were those when a roommate would come downstairs to ask something random at 11pm, a question that would turn into a conversation stretching well past 2am. I remember very few of my scheduled meals, but I see those nights vividly in my mind. This past summer, seeing human beings on a whim and shooting the breeze gave me the kind of energy that is hard to have and hold onto these days.

I’m focusing on club and campus culture at this one school, but I think the problem is widespread in many different yet intertwined forms in the world we live in. Many of us are overscheduled, overtired, and stuck within the little enclaves we count ourselves lucky enough to get into. (That’s another problem, of course: the phagocytic nature of clubs and organizational culture is always an extrinsic value judgment on whether you’re worthy as a person.)

I miss spontaneity dearly because of the pandemic, but I missed it before mid-March, too. And that’s a huge problem: we cling tightly to the identities that organizations or clubs provide us, and then they suddenly become a social space, too. One’s identity becomes not what one values or who one is, but rather attachment to a larger org that should not provide us with all the self-actualization we want to undergo.

What if we said no to more work that is probably unnecessary and a waste of time? To arbitrary regulations that determine whether we’re good enough for a club of our own peers? (Literally — in lecture, people probably have sat behind the kid who rejected them from the lit mag or investment club.) What if we said no to socializing with a purpose, as though that was ever a real thing to begin with? I’m thinking about these questions, and possible remedies moving forward. I invite you to comment if you have your own thoughts.

links you should click on

1. The people I text regularly know I say this phrase a lot, but this article on pandemic forecasts for this winter is the literal embodiment of “I hate it here.” If you only click on one link in this newsletter, please make it this one. I’m literally begging you. Please.

2. Something about footnotes that I didn’t write, but wish I had!

3. How the French make butter, even today.

4. One the most cogent, enlightening, and yikes articles I’ve ever read on urban planning, green spaces, economic property, and social unrest. At the very end, Davis tells us why you can’t light a bonfire on beaches (“The subversive potential, the utopian potential of the beach has always been something that has received maximum repression against it”).

5. On evictions and MA state senators not moving forward on the issue.

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