Down in the dumps: Deindividuation of dorm communities

Nov. 8, 2017, 1:00 a.m.

Some heavy duty was weighing down Larkin on Sunday morning. And by “heavy duty,” I don’t mean classic freshman dorm drama or weekly midterm angst …

There was a literal pile of heavy duty festering in the Larkin North lounge.

You read that right – someone defecated and urinated in a freshman dorm lounge this past weekend. And although this may be one of the most rancid and recent instances of public space defamation, the disrespect of public spaces at Stanford is an unfortunate and ongoing trend.

Coming into my first year of college, I thought I was relatively prepared for the new living situation – sharing showers and toilets, living with a roommate, using gender neutral bathrooms and staying in a building with another 90-odd freshmen. The prospect of conflicting hygiene norms seemed to be of little issue, something that could be easily dealt with and stomached in order to simply survive living in shared spaces. Yet after the recent defecation debacle, a few things have come into perspective.

First, and foremost, the treatment of Stanford’s public spaces as dispensable and unworthy of respect has become an unfortunate norm within the freshman dorm community. Students caught up with hosting dorm parties on the weekend hardly stop to think of the alcohol/EANAB spillage, property damage or intoxication-induced vomit that could come as a result. And while the partying and alcohol consumption is typical and certainly not unusual in freshman dorms, the vandalization of public spaces that often comes with these activities does not have to be an ongoing norm.

The aftermath of such incidents should not rest on the shoulders of the janitorial staff, nor on the other students living within the same community, who most often bear the burden of cleaning up these accidents. Following Larkin’s recent feces fiasco, the lounge was barred off to students because of the biohazard risks associated with it, and because no person took ownership of their blatant act of vandalization, Larkin’s RAs were later forced to hire emergency outside janitorial services to safely and thoroughly clean the mess – services that cost the dorm approximately $500 and will force Larkin to cut certain extracurricular dorm activities.

It’s through the repercussions of the Larkin defecation that we see the main tenets of “public space” and “public goods” becoming threatened by students who simply do not care enough to uphold the values of Stanford’s Fundamental Standard.

Under the basic rules of public space, common areas are designated for open and free use by any member of the community, the main caveat and assumption to that rule being a baseline respect for other people’s uses of space and for the property within said space. With these provisions, we assume that areas like the Larkin lounge operate under the ideas of non-exclusivity and non-rivalry: Students cannot be excluded from the space, and another person’s use of the space does not hinder the availability or use of it for other students.

But perhaps the reasoning behind the seemingly recent disrespect for public spaces can be explained economically as the concept of “public goods” itself; a certain “tragedy of the commons” can be used to describe why students — under the influence of alcohol, substances or otherwise – decide to act so impertinently toward community spaces. The tragedy of the commons ascertains that individuals may act independently and for their own self-interest, regardless of the common good of others in the community, thus spoiling or ruining that resource. In this case, a community space is defecated on or vandalized by an individual because the space is deemed less valuable due to its ultimate availability and ease of access. This accessibility to all Stanford students might mean we may take for granted its availability and usual cleanliness (a direct product of the work of our janitorial staff).

A deindividuation of people arises, in which students lose self-awareness and self-restraint in these group situations – it’s easy to remain unidentified when there are 100 other students within the same community to absorb the blame. Anonymity thus becomes power, as well as a plausible excuse to act outside of group norms.

Although a tragedy of the commons and a distinct deindividuation can help us understand why students may act out of order beyond just the influence of alcohol, these concepts still cannot justify what happens all too often in dorm common spaces. Larkin’s recent mess has made it abundantly clear that although dorm spaces are meant to be used, they are not substitutes for bathrooms. This incident was a direct contradiction to the standards put forth by our university, yet it underlines the growing prevalence of deindividuation in these larger social settings — a theme that can be directly combatted by taking responsibility for yourself, for others and for the protection of the rest of the community.

Contact Elizabeth Lindqwister at liz ‘at’

Elizabeth Lindqwister is a senior from Peoria, Illinois, majoring in history. She is the Vol. 259 Public Editor, having previously served as the Vol. 257 Executive Editor and Vice President. Find her at CoHo or liz 'at'

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