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Every Thursday afternoon, I pick up a four-year-old from preschool, take him home, and make him dinner. I say I do this for the money, but I really do it to stay sane. You see, kids are unapologetically passionate and independent. In his case, despite my protests, he runs his shark gloves along the walls of both subway stations, repeatedly jumps from couch to couch when we get home, and sneaks “granolie” while I’m making dinner. I pout, he laughs. Once, when talking about my molecular model kit, I said, “Guess what? We play with Legos in my chemistry class.” He replied, “Legos aren’t even fun, Natalia.” No judgement, just honesty.

The Columbia experience is almost antithetical: all judgement, and honesty only when it fits that judgement. There are good reasons for this. Students have essentially been conditioned into constantly critiquing. When analysis and evaluation are second nature, it becomes automatic to mentally structure the world into patterns, paradigms, and dichotomies. This is not to say that critical thinking deserves less merit; in fact, informed discourse is the basis of all productive learning. Yet, on this campus, students are entrenched in a culture of disagreement that has become normative and unconscious.

To put it simply, at Columbia, we like to argue (we call it discourse). We argue often, over everything, and without really acknowledging the weight of the argument or the importance of the subject matter. My friends from New Jersey can go at it for an hour over whether a breakfast meat is called “pork roll” or “Taylor ham.” At the same time, arguments, in their intensity and their content, have come to socially define us. The aux cord at parties is almost sacred;you should play something lit, but not too popular—maybe Migos, but not “Bad and Boujee.” Don’t screw up, or the conversation will turn into a formal debate.

Our arguments, instead of our personalities, construct the identities that other people perceive. On campus, a kind of curated individuality is required. This curation occurs through a process of loud, frequent dismissal and promotion. The unconscious culture of Columbia seems to say, “you should be unique, but this uniqueness must exist within a set of rules.” You are a jigsaw piece that looks different enough to claim your own space in the larger picture, but is still kind of the same as everyone else.

By enforcing this mentality of slight variation from a mold, rather than the unadulterated expression of internal joy, we limit the potential of the larger picture. Templates are useful tools for categorization; they have no place in regulating our interests. Viewing every aspect of life through a critical lens, our true selves are sacrificed for the loudest, most inflammatory iteration.

Even maneuvering out of these inflammatory encounters, which has become a personal hobby of mine, faces absurd criticism. Last semester, I refused a friend’s attempt to instigate an argument over ranking the literatures of different countries, and he replied, “Oh right, you don’t have opinions.” So, I applied for an opinion column. This was not (predominantly) a spiteful act; I know I’m quicker to listen than to campaign. I like to understand all opinions before really settling into my own. Even then, I’d rather think than speak. But, I will advocate for the unadulterated expression of specific passions. In many ways, my column is that expression.

Finding these opportunities for individual expression is crucial because every student at Columbia is special. Not because of any specific, shared quality, but because of a productive, positive uniqueness. Yet, so much importance is allocated to negative empathy—to relating to others over shared dislike. For some reason, it’s easier to collectively drag Taylor Swift than to admit we still secretly jam out to “Our Song;” or maybe that’s just me. But in any case, shouldn’t positive empathy be equally important? Within the realm of the minimally problematic, it’s important to like different things. Uncool things. Mainstream things. Be unconditionally proud of what brings you joy, so that joy continues to exist in any context.

We sacrifice this joy for positional power, social capital or “discourse,” and in turn, we lose something beautiful and childlike. You can picture your best friend telling you about something they love—with brightened eyes and whirlwind hands, they stumble over syllables, racing towards an undefined, endlessly exciting future.

When we sacrifice this personal wonder for the argumentative culture of this university, the consequences are devastating—contributing to the intensely competitive environment and exclusively negative bonds among members of the student body. Additionally, conforming to an argumentative stereotype inhibits any possible originality. So, own your independent personality and accept that your presence in the mix of Columbia students is most perfect when you maintain the individuality that got you here in the first place.

Natalia Queenan is a sophomore in Barnard College studying neuroscience and English. You can find her waving to every kid on campus while passionately avoiding eye contact with their parents. She encourages you to unapologetically like things, including this piece. If you don’t, she encourages you to keep it to yourself. Miss Interpretations runs alternate Wednesdays.

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campus culture individuality discourse
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