Le Petit Prince: On social life

Oct. 30, 2022, 8:41 p.m.

Ben Marra’s column “La Petit Prince” showcases a sensitive young man as he navigates social life and loss on a completely normal and functioning college campus.

The postponement of Eurotrash had many students bewildered and angry, debating again the issue of Stanford’s overreach into social life. It’s raised questions that I’ve been mulling over, about more general modern ills, the environment of the hyper-elite university and what kind of sociality we should actually want at a place like Stanford. 

I won’t chart the University’s transformation over time into the helicopter parent it often seems to be today. It is not isolated here, and I am more interested in the deeper cracks in our social landscape which many of us know and feel instinctively. It seems to me that unchecked, top-heavy University governance is but a symptom of our undeniable alienation from one another, an intrusion through a social fabric either thin or totally nonexistent. 

Alienation — that scholarly hallmark of capitalism and modernity — has many definitions. Recently, I’ve been interested in it as a relatively basic social-emotional phenomenon: that is, our degraded ability to connect with and relate to people in direct proximity to us, and a diminished sense of the reality of our bodily, social and geographical contexts, replaced by more abstract ideas of community. It has too many causes to get into, among them, social technologies and wealth disparity. The pandemic, clearly, remains a devastating coup-de-grace in these regards.

This is well known here and often discussed in relation to party culture. There is a common belief, echoed in the widely read article on the topic by Ginevra Davis, that a root cause of deadly parties (and subsequent administrative crackdown) has been binge drinking and drug use motivated by anxiety and alienation. Supposedly, it is the “lonely freshmen drinking in the corner” who are the ones being transported for over-intoxication — the logic being that students are more likely to get carried away when social life is not abundant enough, ostensibly demanding that they squeeze a week’s worth of fun into one or two evenings.

Binge drinking is no anomaly on college campuses, now nor historically, but a friend of mine expressed well that something about current college drinking culture has a slightly darker note to it. 

“I’m used to drinking being a big part of social life in my family,” she said. “We’re a big family, and staying close is a priority for my parent’s generation. My tías who live in separate states have a few shots together, and then go dancing. At its best, it cuts through all the superego stuff and gets right to the love. But here, drinking often feels desperate and self-defeating.”

It has been shown, fascinatingly, that alcohol and intoxication do not obey a strictly linear relationship. At parties, social interaction and intoxication are inextricable, each influencing our perception of the other.

A 2018 study found that adults given placebo drinks and put into a controlled party setting with only other placebo-ingesting participants, all reported high levels of intoxication. It appears that a person’s Blood Alcohol Content (BAC) is not the only factor that affects feelings of intoxication. There is a choice, through the gesture of drinking and the context of a party, to inhabit a different, socially-reinforced state of consciousness. 

It has also been suggested that stress levels prior to and during drinking directly, beyond just influencing subjective perceptions of intoxication, measurably affect BAC.

Of course, these mechanisms are complex and not well understood, but studies like these suggest something that many cultural wisdoms already know: Intoxication is a communal state as well as an individual one. It’s plausible to imagine that a “healthy” alcohol culture, down to the physiological level, relies on closeness, comfort and some form of co-regulation to help mediate destructive outcomes. 

Many, myself included, show up at Stanford events and often feel the opposite. 

The same friend of mine attended Eurotrash, and recalled, “I was drinking, trying to get over my own angst, and maybe get to a point where I could just hug or kiss a stranger. But I never got over the wall. I felt like everyone was looking at me sideways. It made me feel crazy.”

I asked her why.

“I think I just started questioning what felt so unsatisfying,” she said. “Why are we so afraid of one another? Can college, or life really be that serious?“

Alienation to a degree verging on imaginary antagonisms is a familiar feeling — it’s a key part of what is generally diagnosed as some form of anxiety. To feel this way, of course, absolutely negates the purpose of partying. Ideally, we gather to celebrate being young, virile, together and, to some extent, free. 

Of course, the current ethos of a place like Stanford is at odds with ideas like fun and casual connection. As we advance into an age in which obsessive pre-professionalism is the norm, rather than the exception, on elite campuses, a depressing teleology has come to dominate the student mindset. As I observe it, students have a sense that this, here, is not actually a part of their lives. That nothing, really, is. Rather, your life is something abstract, illusory, that will step out from behind a curtain once you’ve amassed the credentials or the wealth to deserve it, or once the world is changed. Improved, even.

But I find every time Saturday night rolls over, the world remains as it is, and I too am still me, regardless of whether I spent the night fixated on lofty career prospects or just sex. I might as well have been having a good time.

Personally, I don’t share the allegiance of Ginevra Davis to a mythical Stanford in which bacchanalian student culture somehow led to big, lucrative disruptions of the culture like Google and Snapchat. I don’t care whether students leave campus contemptuous of the adult world at large, and primed to remake it in their own image. It is, however, clear to me that one function of the elite university is to be a place in which students engage with both knowledge and sociality in something like the “unfettered” way she describes. It is well known that Apollo attended Bacchus’ raves.

In an ideal world, this kind of freedom leads to respect for some things and irreverence for others. This applies to ideas, but just as crucially to social conduct. Perhaps we realize, after enough drug-fueled hookups, that coffee-fueled catch-ups are more our speed. 

It seems possible to me that in all the calls for Stanford to “do better,” to suddenly act in new and virtuous ways in which it has never been known to act, we forget that — with the exception of bureaucrats locked away in offices — we constitute the University. 

Regardless of University action, with weaker social bonds, we necessarily follow weaker norms, and we have weaker obligations to the people around us. The various ways we’re alienated from those living in proximity to us, if anything, leave us more vulnerable to instances of individual cruelty, as well as our own proclivities toward mental illness. As is common rhetoric even across political divides, connected communities are safer.

Re-reading, I recognize it’s hard to take seriously any populist call for solidarity in the most elite and rarified zip code in the country against lame school-bureaucrat overlords. Nonetheless, it seems a shame, now that we’re all here, to be cut off from one another’s company. As I believe it is felt universally: I’d rather you, my peers and teachers, fashion my life, than the barely calcified institutions crusting on these walls, which were themselves built so recently.

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