In the face of confusion, unfairness, and pure evil, it is natural to cling to neat narratives and reductions.
There is a group of people that will tell you that Stevie Wonder is not actually blind. The “Stevie Wonder Truthers” point to all sorts of evidence, including a clip of the singer catching a falling microphone stand.
I must admit—the video and its implications are unsettling. How can a man who cannot see possibly react so quickly?
And then you start asking: What does this mean about what I know? Or at least what I think I know?
That’s where conspiracies start to come in. There is a peculiar comfort in believing that all this confusion—like Stevie Wonder being “blind”—is just an elaborate plot. It is comforting to believe that someone with intention is behind all this, however evil or deceptive they might be. And most importantly, it is comforting to know that the world is not all just meaningless chaos—that there is therefore a potential antidote.
Columbia now faces chaos far more profound than the implications of a sighted Stevie Wonder. After a string of suicides, we grasp for sense in senselessness.
To cope with the disarray, we appear to have raised our own sort of conspiracy theory: that of a collective “campus mental health.”
We speak in the singular, as if the collective mental health of Columbia University were a tender plant that simply needed more water or sunlight (or Lerner lounges and free food events); we only need take the time and the energy to understand its illness and apply the treatment. We have put faith in “real, tangible changes that will make our college experience better before we graduate,” as the editorial board describes them.
While this conception of things can provide comfort, there is an underlying danger that we will be disappointed. Because when we say “mental health at Columbia,” we really mean to refer to the mental health of 50,000 students and faculty, each with their own unbelievably complex psychological states. We cannot fully understand what makes even one person tick—each of us can barely even understand ourselves. How could anybody possibly understand fifty thousand people and the myriad of ways in which they interact? The individual mental health states of people certainly matter and are related to one another, but there is no monolith.
What’s especially troubling is that Columbia has not neglected its students; if it had, this would all make sense. Words of wisdom from Emily Zhang: “I really do appreciate their efforts. I don’t think anyone can critique the administration for not trying enough. It’s kind of like a well-meaning parent who doesn’t exactly know how to help. They’re trying their best, but it’s some kind of force or feeling that us undergrads have that they can’t comprehend. And they just don’t know how to help.” If it were simply a matter of utter disregard for students—if there were no CPS, no Office of University Life, no Go Ask Alice!—the solution would be clear. But things are not clear.
While the administration has not disclosed the specific results of its analysis yet, what comments it has made illustrate the lack of clear understanding. “[T]he Jed Foundation really had a lot of good things to say about what’s already in place. It’s not just a matter of thinking of new things to do,” says the director of CPS. Even though the report contains a more detailed, concrete plan that has yet to be revealed, the Jed Foundation’s current messaging leaves the community with a sense that maybe nothing can be done. That’s a terrifying prospect, but it is a reality we must face.
Still, the causes of our stress culture are not altogether mysterious. Between its location in the city, weak school spirit (at least in the traditional sense), and the ruthless housing lottery, the Columbia undergraduate experience emulates “the real world” better than any of its peers. And the real world, at least from my sheltered perspective, is nearly complete chaos. There is no residential college or house system to organize life.
Yet before sounding too complacent with unacceptable tragedy, there is also an important distinction to make. Columbia College Student Council Vice President of Policy Nicole Allicock observed that the suicides are “emblematic, one way or another, of a culture ... of people feeling as though mental health on this campus is, writ large, terrible.” The Columbia community can do a better job catching suicides before they occur, and it is absolutely crucial that we try our best to do so. But the suicides are neither the full extent nor the cause of the sociological issues Columbia is facing—they are the worst symptoms.
One of the most pressing of these sociological issues is "a lack of a strong campus community,” perhaps the most frequently cited complaint at Columbia. But communities are largely spontaneous. Communities can change and come into being, but it takes precarious faith to hope that steering committees can engineer that change—hope in a lot of sterile jargon like “enhance systems, protocols and processes,” “policies,” “programs,” “assessment,” “campus evaluation,” “procedures,” “objectives,” and “strategic plan.” Is this really the language of meaningful cultural change?
Ultimately, in the face of large-scale chaos, we cannot put all of our faith in the hands of Columbia’s bureaucrats. Columbia being comprised of 50,000 individuals, it will take 50,000 individuals acting with empathy and intent to change Columbia. Therefore, the best hope we can have is in each of our individual abilities to effect just a little bit of that change.
Joseph Siegel is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in philosophy. Right to the Core runs alternate Mondays.
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