When I applied to join the Social Project Work Group as one of six at-large members appointed by the AAS senate, I was adamant about my antagonistic role. Social clubs, as they had been proposed, would have to be defeated. If not, they would need to be fundamentally transformed. Unfortunately, they have not been. So, today I write to encourage you to vote “no” to social clubs on Thursday. The work group did not resolve the significant problems posed in the open letter 28 students signed last November. No matter how benignly they are marketed, social clubs fail at being anything but exclusive and conservative. They recapitulate existing hierarchical social tensions and institutionally reproduce the divisions of social life that the abolition of fraternities sought to end.
We should guarantee every student the right to organize socially. We should desire a campus where every student, because of and not in spite of social differences, would be able to befriend any other student. However, a variety of factors — athletic team membership, first-year dorm placement, (lack of) attendance at the socials, religion, political stances — limit our ability to befriend others on this campus. In other words, we tend to spend time with those whose identities, desires and interests we share. We spend time with those who are similar to us precisely because of institutional or social recognition of common talents (e.g. athletics), common identities (e.g. affinity groups) and common activist causes (e.g. GAP). That said, none of the groups I have mentioned have “being social” as their sanction. None of them directly limit the right to organize socially. However, social clubs — institutionalized, coed fraternities — are precisely the institutional and social sanction that directly infringes on that right.
Some students have more of a “right” than others to organize socially on this campus. What social clubs do is formally erode that right for some and grant it to other students. The marketing strategy of the Social Project Work Group has been based on our collective buy-in, on our willingness to grant some students an authorized form to organize socially (and exclusively). No matter how energetically the committee markets them, some students have neither the social nor economic capital to buy in to them. Furthermore, some students, like me, have decided to oppose social clubs because they want to socialize in ways that are inclusive. Our ways of socializing are incompatible with the exclusive social relations that such clubs constitute. Social clubs will sanction and institutionally privilege forms of social life that are exclusive and leave out those of us, especially those of us who are lonely, who want an inclusive social environment.
Central to the work group’s campaign is that social clubs constitute “secondary social relations,” beyond our primary friend groups. (Of course, the lonely students who want to join social clubs have primary friend groups; social clubs are merely auxiliary! And, don’t fear, the Social Club Oversight Committee will ensure that social clubs won’t constitute primary friend groups.) If secondary social relations are what social clubs seek to create, we would not let small groups of students (primary friend groups) start them, nor would we let them have traditions develop through common identities or campus-wide social events. Such homogeneity would attract students with certain interests and desires and would encourage social club members to advertise their respective social clubs in order to maintain and perpetuate a social club’s identity and events.
For true secondary social relations to form, the clubs would need to be constantly recreated annually and randomly. In such an experiment, as suggested by two members of College Council, to which we presented the social club proposal in early April, students would be randomly assigned into groups at the beginning of each academic year. With financial support from the college for food and activities, students in each group would meet with some frequency and be required to put on some campus event each semester. Each of these groups would be terminated at the end of each academic year and completely new, randomized groups would form the following year. In that sense, these groups would constitute an experiment: a randomized trial of randomized social groups of which all students were part. That idea, if overseen by students, has the potential to sustain the engaging conversation with students whom one does not know produced at a Pindar Dinner, without the bourgeois formalities of a 1920s-era cocktail party.
However, we have a proposal that assumes that whatever forms of social life it sanctions (e.g., regular dinners, regular meetings, the planning of a social event) includes activities in which all students want to partake. The moment we assume otherwise, my claim of exclusivity prevails. But that is precisely the problem: The only concrete examples of what social clubs do revolve around certain forms of socializing, which do not interest all students. Regular dinners, regular meetings, the planning of a social event, tailgates, tents at homecoming — these types of events don’t interest all students. To be clear, the currently proposed social clubs could not form around any “unifying skill or interest” — anything beyond social. Contrary to the suggestion of one member of the work group, planning a semesterly Day of Dialogue is an “interest” (if not more) and could not be the project of a social club. Furthermore, if a social club were to have a “unifying skill or interest” and wanted to receive AAS or administrative funding, it would need to register as a student organization (and thus need to be inclusive).
Perhaps what the members of the committee do not fully understand is the difference between student preferences and sanctioned exclusivity. Students at Amherst have a variety of interests, desires and talents that attract them to form different social groups. That is a problem that fuels loneliness on our campus. What social clubs in their current form do is further sanction those divisions, further eroding the possibility that students make friends beyond those interests, desires and talents.
Fraternal and sororal organizations like social clubs — with historical traditions and identities and alumni connections — return Amherst to its culture of an old-boy network in which those with the privilege to socialize for socialization’s sake receive the privilege to continue socializing while others will remain lonely. Even if 60 percent, 70 percent, 80 percent, 90 percent, 100 percent of students join social clubs, they institutionalize and privilege exclusivity. That said, I can conceive a way to plan social life which is democratic: With open meetings, public minutes, testimonies by community members and the presence of (at least a few) faculty and staff. Furthermore, I can imagine, as I wrote in my application to the AAS Appointments Board, new forms of social life that could create a more inclusive social atmosphere: student governance, new theme houses and more diverse dorm and social space architectures. Unfortunately, rather than permit contrarian viewpoints and criticisms seriously to influence its plans, the Social Project Work Group has been precisely what social clubs risk becoming: exclusive.
Finally, a word on voting: This is a political project, not a neutral proposal. The committee is marketing social clubs by emailing athletic team captains and affinity group leaders. They are speaking to administrators in the Multicultural Resource Center, Queer Resource Center, student health office and Title IX office, working to obtain endorsements. Regardless of whether you will join them, a “yes” vote is the approval of the reinstitution of the exclusive form of the fraternity on campus. A “no” vote is a vote for inclusion. It is not an invitation to forget the problem of loneliness or the great social anxieties of the first-year student. It is the authority to say “yes” to creating new democratic and egalitarian forms of social life.