As a classics major, I sometimes walk through life in strange ways. Take for instance the simple act of strolling into Perkins late at night. The ancient Greeks had a concept of “miasma,” or pollution that could affect an individual, a family or an entire city due to disorderly actions ranging from murder to incest to various kinds of sacrilege. Among the empty cups of coffee, laptops opened to Facebook and side conversations, I sense a particular Duke pollution that makes me wonder if there’s some administrator who has made a stew of his brother’s children and fed it to him. As finals approach, students are physically and psychologically tired—they are anxious, depressed, sleep-deprived and malnourished—and you can feel it in the air. The pollution isn’t confined to the library, but seeps into every corner of campus. Our dorm rooms. Our parties. Our very way thinking.
Duke’s miasma emanates from our sense of entitlement and manifests itself in destructive, violent and selfish behaviors….
Alas, I can only imagine a world colored by Furies and ritual purity for so long. Today, we talk about the ills of our society in a slightly less magical language of structures and subjectivity. Just because the language has changed, however, doesn’t mean the presence of harmful environments has disappeared. Because we imagine our worlds differently from the ancient Greeks, it will take a different approach to rid ourselves of what ails us.
The oft-cited motto of “work hard, play hard” can shed light on one of the fundamental ways that we tend to organize our own world. Whether we accept the motto or not, most of us go through our lives with the assumption that “working” and “playing” are entirely distinct ways of being. Not only are these realms distinct, but they also correlate to the two primary ways of how we gauge our self worth: (1) our productivity, and (2) our entertainment. Our self-worth is often tied to our GPA, job placement or the size of our workload. When we’re not in “work mode” we tend to value our existence by the media we consume, the bodies we use (and abuse) for pleasure and the substances we enjoy.
I’m not trying to say that succeeding academically or enjoying ourselves are intrinsically negative things. When we organize our world in this restrictive manner, however, we delude ourselves, limit our potential for living and end up causing a great deal of suffering. Aside from working or playing, what time do we have for ethical living, self-discovery, critical thinking, compassion toward ourselves and others or even simply being? It’s not like we’ve completely forgotten about these possibilities, but why aren’t any of these, rather than productivity or entertainment, taking precedence in the way that we inhabit our world? And why aren’t we living in a manner that more holistically recognizes our humanity in every moment?
The purpose of this exercise isn’t simply to deconstruct a trite expression, but to radically re-imagine our existence so we can start to address how polluted our campus really is. What does “work hard, play hard” have to do not only with psychological distress from finals but things like destruction of our environment, substance abuse, mental illness, eating disorders and sexual assault? How does our drive for excellence somehow yield seemingly highly accomplished and productive individuals and simultaneously produce an absurdly destructive and violent environment?
We can’t talk about how polluted Duke is without addressing the predominance of sexual assault on campus. When the Office of Student Conduct has reduced the statute of limitations from two years to one, when there have been only 27 cases reported to the OSC over the past 10 years, one has to wonder what archaic notions of purity are still at play in determining the administration’s response to sexual assault. It is important that we keep an appropriate statute of limitations for sexual assault, but real change on this issue won’t happen until we radically re-evaluate the environment we have on this campus. So that a rape joke isn’t even remotely funny and we hold perpetrators accountable rather than blame the victim. A student one would usually consider successful (high GPA, top consulting job, good social standing), could easily be guilty of committing a heinous and violent crime. We need a campus where ethical behavior is valued more than prestige and money. It’s not that every “successful” student is a rapist, but college campuses, ours included, are environments that have created a space where sexual predators have a free pass.
If we reorganized our world so that respect for our own humanity came before any other vision of what it means to be the ideal student, we could begin to work to make this campus a less polluted place. Recognizing the problem is only the first step; the real work comes in actively reshaping the world around you. No deus ex machina is going to come to rid us of our pollution. We are each responsible for making the world as we would like to see it.
Ahmad Jitan is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Thursday. Follow Ahmad on Twitter @AhmadJitan