The first time I saw a Facebook birthday fundraiser, I nearly dropped my phone. My stomach turned over and goosebumps covered my arms. You may be thinking this is excessively dramatic—you’re probably right. Still, for some odd reason, a post which ultimately benefited a good charity still made me feel gross. I’ve thought about it, and concluded that this gross feeling was caused by the performative friendship that our generation gravitates toward.
To be fair, I don’t think Facebook fundraisers are a consciously corrupt operation. It is so easy to say “yes” on Facebook. Especially when peers are asking you to show that you care about them by donating to their chosen charity. But take a second and really think about what a birthday is.
Birthdays are personal celebrations. They’re a chance for close friends and family to demonstrate their love through gifts. Gifts are a manifestation of relationships—the best ones are references to inside jokes or ones that capture some important aspect of an individual. The best ones are products of intense time and thought, not a display of wealth. Expanding what should be a personal moment of relation to the hundreds of acquaintances on Facebook removes the specialness of gift-giving. Replacing the exchange of gifts with a fundraiser turns the symbolic representation of close relationships into a performative financial exchange.
Displays like this erase the sense of interpersonal interaction and empathy that remain central to an overall definition of morality. In essence, the Facebook birthday fundraiser makes a generalized moral performance substitute for the underlying morality of a deeply personal practice.
This fundraising phenomenon makes me so uncomfortable because I have taken part in the ingenuine principles that underlie it. I will not sit here and tell you about the performativity of social media; we all know the conscious presentation of the self online is much different from the act of existing. This obviously extends to online depictions of ourselves as moral and kind individuals. I will, however, explain how this performativity has pervaded our reality as well. Much like our online personas, our campus is structured around a performative identity.
At Columbia, we do genuinely relate to each other over the stresses that the University brings, but the extent of this stress is often exaggerated. This is often to expand empathy on campus, which usually involves shared complaints about classwork and the administration. These complaints seem to overtake the social narrative and rule our social media community. The very concept of campus morality, then, is determined by a kind of performance similar to the Facebook fundraiser. Interpersonal relations of social media on campus have become structured around a false, generalized discomfort. Thus, our moral care for one another extends as far as we are unhappy, to the extent that the structural roots of socialized dissatisfaction generally go unnoticed.
I came here full of enthusiasm and excitement, and my demeanor slowly withered into some generally destructive black hole. I have been stripped of my ability to care. I am angry that Columbia University does not care about my personal happiness. I am now simply another half-upset, half-apathetic undergraduate. You’ve probably heard this story a million times, from a million different students here. Except, for me, it’s absolutely untrue.
For all the complaints I have about this campus, there are moments that fill my every day with wonder. There are new people with interesting backstories, there are new academic perspectives to think about, there are organic chemistry problems that I actually figure out. Yet, I don’t really ever talk about these moments. This campus culture rewards complaining; establishing relationships here was easier for me after I participated in this general unhappiness. I have assumed a more negative identity in order to partake in the performance of empathetic relations that are expected at Columbia.
It makes sense that when we generalize our experiences, the negative traits are ones that that most people do have in common. We are all stressed, upset with the administration, and overtired. Expressing our concerns is important, but these generalized traits don’t form our individual identities. After assimilating, I didn’t know how to tell this student body that I will always be warm and smiling.
When I complain about this school, I immediately feel the need to shower after. I want to be here. I have always tried to reject negativity; this is usually a hard task, but the difficulty amplified here. The student body needs to understand that we cannot enforce a culture of negativity for the excuse to express an ultimately superficial sense of empathy. Humans care about each other, even when they are happy. We can do this too. In fact, the truly meaningful relationships we make must be grounded in genuine care for one another and concerted efforts to express this care in thoughtful ways that are removed from performative morality.
Natalia Queenan has made the decision to be happy. This column makes her happy, so she wrote another one. She hopes it made you happy too. She also hopes that you don’t use social media to look like a good person, you just are one. Miss Interpretations ran alternate Wednesdays.
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