The Need for a Thoughtful Conversation about Social Life
Issue   |   Wed, 02/08/2012 - 00:02

I should start with an introduction. Hi, my name’s Noah. I’m the RC of the second floor in Stearns, which, by the way, is a substance-free community. I consume alcohol. My residents know this – I told them on the first day I met them – and they seem to be okay with it. I made them a promise that I would strive to create the community they wanted, and that I would never bring any sort of negative attitude back to their living space. Some of my residents drink, and I expect them to do the same. I still consider myself part of the Stearns community, part of the substance-free community. That means different things to different people.

Today I walked onto my floor and found a pamphlet posted on a bulletin board. It read, “think!” That gave me a bit of a sour feeling from the start, implying that I don’t already think about whatever was inside the pamphlet. It turns out the pamphlet was about drinking culture on campus, how campus life centered around drinking is seriously deficient and how we need to engage in a prolonged discussion about social stigma toward drinking and non-drinking. It turns out that I think about these things a lot. I thought about them last year, as a student who felt sequestered and judged for my drinking by sub-free friends. I think about it this year, as an RC who doesn’t want to see his resident having the same misconceptions.

Below “think!” the pamphlet reads: “The purpose of this pamphlet is not to patronize the beliefs of activities of our fellow students, but rather, to spark conversation and thought.” Fair enough. More conversation about this social divide is sorely needed, so long as the approach is thoughtful and respectful. But the tone of the first few pages of the pamphlet is certainly judgmental, if not offensive. I agree that the Socials are not an ideal party scene, but claiming, “… urine coats the basement floors” is taking it a bit too far. I personally don’t enjoy partying in the Socials, but others do, and a thoughtful conversation cannot begin with a clearly negative characterization of any one side (though there aren’t really sides — more on that later).

The pamphlet then continues to describe an ideal social interaction in the eyes of the writer: the first meeting of his/her parents. They met in the library, with a conversation about a math problem that culminated with dad asking mom out on a date. Full disclosure: I met my girlfriend on the first day of orientation, at Keefe Campus Center Night. Two weeks later, we got drunk and made out. I never asked her out on a date, but that’s not what I’ll be telling my children in 20 years. I'm not ashamed of my decisions — I'm quite happy with them — but parents will always try to idealize the stories they tell their kids.

The point is that these sorts of interactions do happen at Amherst College. Drunken interactions happen too, and they’re far more visible. A friend once told me to picture the Socials on a given Saturday night. How many kids could possibly be packed on those stairwells and in those suites, presumably slipping on urine-coated floors and “shattered handles of vodka?” Perhaps 400, at a liberal estimate? Our eyes are drawn there because the Socials are readily visible. But where are the other 1400+ Amherst students? They’re busy hanging out with friends in smaller gatherings, perhaps, playing card games or watching TV. Maybe they drink a beer or two while they do it: it makes no difference. The Socials are not ideal, we all know this. There are myriad problems with this particular social scene at Amherst, from drinking at a dangerous level to the presence of sexually predatory environments. We need to work on these problems. But while we do, we can take heart in knowing that the majority of Jeffs are elsewhere, perhaps having meaningful moments with others, perhaps enjoying a drink while they do.

The pamphlet frames the social problem at Amherst as one of sides, as one that pits quiet, reasonable and fun-loving sub-free students against loud and irrational boozers who party hard and drink to excess. And please, don’t tell me that isn’t what it implies. A passage in the pamphlet which tries to frame the social sigma says that “The people in the socials cannot understand why someone would much rather spend their night, say, playing board games with friends or running around with Nerf guns” – safe and universally appealing activities – while “the sub-free students [. . .] don’t understand how it could ever be fun to pack into the sweaty, over-crowded Socials and trip over each other only to end the night by throwing up in a stinky bathroom.” This is clear bias toward the former activities, and no attempt to bridge differences.

The truth is, there’s a middle ground, and I’d wager that’s where the majority of Amherst students fall. I like to drink, but I don’t like to party in the conventional sense. Many of my residents are the opposite: they like to party, but not to drink. A typical Saturday night sees them playing water pong or ginger ale slap cup in the common room. Neither of us has a problem with the other, so long as we don’t make one another uncomfortable. This discomfort could come in the form of my residents giving me a judgmental glare, or it could come in the form of me vomiting in the toilet and being too drunk to clean it up. So long as we respect one another and work to keep this communal space comfortable, there’s no reason for antagonism.
This brings me back to where I started: sub-free means different things to different people. I know this from first-hand experience and interaction. Some find alcohol consumption morally reprehensible; that’s fine, as long as you don’t judge others for their choices. Some drink themselves, but only to moderation, and find a sub-free lifestyle more of a fit for them. Some just want a quiet place to study (they choose based on an implicit assumption that “alcohol = noise,” which it doesn’t. I’d bet my floor on a given night is just as noisy as any other). To claim to represent all sub-free students – which the pamphlet’s author does to some extent – is to disrespect the students on my floor who found this pamphlet just as offensive as I did.

As I’ve said before, I consider myself a member of a sub-free community, even though I drink. Does that make me a sub-free student, or not? It’s never so simple. To be fair, the pamphlet’s author does bring up a good point: this discussion surely does need to happen. But not with the “think!” pamphlet as its starting point. We need to come at this with due patience and due reflection. I encourage any attempt to do so.

One more thing: unlike the author of the pamphlet, I’ve attached my name to this article. Please contact me with any questions, concerns, criticisms or anything that can help us both learn more about how to make the campus more awesome than it already is.

Bianca Routt (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/08/2012 - 13:12

Great article Noah!

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Wed, 02/08/2012 - 18:19

I really enjoyed this article. I think you bring up some very thoughtful and valid points, which are even more meaningful given the fact that you are a "sub free" RC. We need more discussions like this out there!

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Thu, 02/09/2012 - 01:30

I agree that a thoughtful discussion should be had about this topic, and you raise some good points. However, you argue that the pamphlet is too one-sided and clearly has a bias, but doesn't the author have a right to express these opinions, just as you have expressed yours now? I would argue that is a topic about which many of us have thought and talked, yet I have seen no effort to engage in the community in a conversation before this pamphlet (I could be mistaken here, but none come to mind at the moment).

Additionally, there is currently no outlet that I know of to have these conversations, an issue that the author of this pamphlet perhaps struggled with before deciding to publish this anonymous piece. I do want to note that I find your last comment ("unlike the author of the pamphlet, I’ve attached my name to this article") just a bit inconsiderate. As I've said, we lack an outlet to constructively discuss this topic, and I don't find anything wrong with the pamphlet's author wanting anonymity. As the author says, the purpose of the pamphlet is to "spark conversation and thought," an objective that does not require the author to state his or her name.

We've all started talking about these pamphlets, and in doing so, we're starting conversations that can grow into constructive discussions. The pamphlet succeeded in encouraging us to think and to engage ourselves with this issue, an accomplishment that I find commendable. The author sparked the conversation, but if we really do want to make creative and constructive dialogues happen on campus, the next move should be to put our energy towards that, not towards critiquing the efforts and opinions of an anonymous community member. Let's brainstorm ideas about how to have these conversations, because comments on link-sharing on Facebook just isn't going to cut it. Just a suggestion, I think "Elephant in the Room"-esque conversations could be a great place to start. This could be the beginning of a shift in perceptions towards social life at Amherst. Let's really talk as a community, in person!

S. (not verified) says:
Sun, 02/12/2012 - 20:32

Could it be any more obvious that you're the author of the pamphlet?

And for what it's worth: The effort would be admirable, but "the author" sets up a binary between "all the sub free kids" and "all those delinquents in the socials" and because of his or her anonymity and stance of the issue, the whole thing has already been attributed to "the sub free community." (Quite frankly, as someone who is technically a member of that sub-free community and who also likes to rage hard every now and then, I'm incredibly offended by the whole situation.)

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Thu, 02/09/2012 - 06:32

(Re: the last comment) In a pamphlet where the author categorically states that "most alcohol consumption is immoral" and which paints the non-subfree lifestyle so negatively, the fact that it is anonymous does matter. And there are plenty of outlets on campus, including The Student. Pamphlets are fine too, but their anonymous nature says a lot about their supposed neutrality.

Noah (not verified) says:
Thu, 02/09/2012 - 11:54

I agree that anonymity is important. The opinions expressed by the author of the pamphlet are unpopular, and it can be scary to express unpopular opinions in the face of tyranny of the majority. I'm not happy that I don't know who to talk to about this, and I'm not happy that this person distributed the pamphlets to my community without my permission. You raise a good point, though: perhaps "Unlike the author of the pamplet" was a bit too strong. I also agree that the author of the pamphlet has a right to his/her opinions, and I never contested that.

I disagree, though, with the idea that the pamphlet was a thoughtful way to provoke discussion. More than discussion, it has provoked anger and offense. The author has a right to his/her opinions, but if he/she truly wants to see something change, they chose an extremely ineffective way to do it. There have been public outlets in the past for these sorts of discussions. Last year there was an Elephant-in-the-Room dialogue which ended up focusing on this very issue. I attended and found it extremely ineffective, too confined to one room and one night and too limited. There was also a petition to extend upper-class sub-free housing, noble in purpose but offensive in tone (much like this pamphlet), which sparked similar dialogue. The important dialogue has been going on below the surface: in the common rooms of first-year resident halls where RCs (not all, but at least some) talk to their residents about avoiding stigma. The conversation surely needs to take on a grander form: of what sort I'm not yet sure, but I encourage any advice.

I do worry that the sort of judgmental tone I read in the pamphlet is unsurpassable. While I could see people getting over their stigmatized views of sub-free kids as "socially-awkward," which I HAVE seen in my own residence hall because many of my residents DON'T feel stigmatized, I don't have the same feeling about those who view drinking as morally reprehensible. That sort of view sticks and is hard to shake. But I remain optimistic. We need to get people into a room to talk about this face-to-face rather than posting in comment sections. I'll think about this in the coming week. If you have any ideas as to what sort of form that should take, please let me know.

Anonymous (not verified) says:
Sun, 02/12/2012 - 21:51

"I'm not happy that this person distributed the pamphlets to my community without my permission." Um, wtf?

Ophelia (not verified) says:
Thu, 02/09/2012 - 23:12

Bravo, Noah! Well-written, and on a sticky subject. Thanks for doing a good job of trying to constructively bridge divides on campus, instead of further cleaving divisions that already exist. No one can write something like this with a perfectly uncharged tone, but I applaud you for keeping a level head and trying to be as inclusive and sensitive as possible. Keep it up. I'd love to see where this conversation goes.

N.H (not verified) says:
Fri, 02/10/2012 - 00:36

The pamphlet author lost the boundary between what he studies and reality.

"Every heart vibrates to that iron string" is from Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay. The descriptions (urine-coated floor, broken bottles, public make out) is contrived to arouse disgust and sensuality. The picture of sane quiet rational students against uncontrolled drunken masses is artificial. The language, images, ideas, and opinions. He probably absorbed from his classes the (18th and 19th century) ideological divide between the rational intellectual and the irrational emotional masses, and he transposed it onto the modern framework of the world around him. But his current world is Amherst College. So, viola! You get sane, quite, nice, thoughtful nonpartiers and the animal partiers.

Although, I disagree with Noah on the anonymity issue. Noah's opinion ---Noah said disagree, but don't judge--- reflects the liberal view around here. That's accepted. The author's view though, is quite controversial here. Half the people who mention the pamphlet complains of it because of the content, not the anonymity issue. Which is to say, lol, if the entire world knows who he is, there will always be those few who would call him names. And however few those are, they would hurt. So I'm all for anonymity, especially when I heard pissed voices around me saying, "I wish I know who this kid is so I could tell him in his face".

I would say, "disagree, judge, but don't act it out". It is hard if somebody has a worldview with certain morals, believe in it, and still to not judge those who they think are doing wrong (drinking, whatever). For them it is a self-contradiction and hypocrisy. So judge. One can hide or display his judgment: just don't hurt people's feelings. (I mean, there will always be the kids who got offended because I wear a yellow shirt. Then, there is always the case where one stands on the stairs screaming my judgment of all creatures only to be ignored by everyone). I guess people decide what the line is. This is all gray too.

Next step: bigger form of discussion on this issue. If this dies down again, though, we know why there will be more pamphlets...

John (not verified) says:
Sun, 02/12/2012 - 15:21

Great article Noah! Classic example of propaganda falling flat when faced with rational thought