Birds of a feather: Sewanee’s cliques and a hopeless lack of dissent

By Max Saltman
Executive Staff

“Sewanee’s a pretty cliquey place.”

After almost two years here, I’ve heard the above statement many times. Usually, it’s made at moments of peak clique visibility, or “cliqueness.” A Sunday night at the library, for example, when TKPs and PKEs colonize the leather couches and armchairs on the first floor. Or that magical moment when, for a split second, and if you don’t blink or sneeze, you can see the Fiji table become the ATO table on Fratside. Just magical.

Sewanee is a small school, but it appears that we’ve found ways to split ourselves up quite efficiently and exclusively, through theme houses, Greek life, drinking societies, and secret societies. We even have a school-sponsored exclusive group: the Order of the Gown. Moreover, we seem to like it a lot. Why?

A simple explanation is that people (and other animals) tend to like and gather around others who look and act like them. Like the old cliché goes: birds of a feather flock together. The research psychologist Martin Kaplan suggested in 1992 that exclusive behavior might have an evolutionary advantage, saying that “we are more likely to learn from others when they’re similar to us.”

The problem with this, he conceded, is that the lack of dissenting views within cliques creates a bad environment for making more “factual judgements.” People get so wrapped up in groupthink that they fail to form or even distrust their own opinions. At Sewanee, I see this translated into our tendency to avoid arguments and debates because they’re unpleasant.

I’ve always wondered why there weren’t more public debates on campus before this year’s SGA presidential debate. I think that the answer may lie in our tendency at Sewanee to not stray outside of our comfort zone, to stay with our own “birds of a feather.” From what I’ve seen, arguments of any kind are poison in Sewanee social circles. One person says something mildly disagreeable to the rest, and the conversation comes to an a**-grinding halt. Everyone is visibly uncomfortable. We’re totally unused to arguing.

We can see this in the previously-mentioned presidential debate. A candidate mentioned Bacchus during the debate’s section about about campus safety, prompting a swift response from two Bacchus drivers on the opinions page, Nisrine Hilizah and Christopher Hornsby, correcting assumptions some students may have about the resource and sharing grievances about how their classmates treat them both inside and outside of the Bacchus van. “If this article upsets you in any way,” they wrote, “GOOD. Our job here is done. Now, let’s talk.”

That article was one of the most valuable things The Purple has published this year. Two writers from a rather clearly defined social clique (Bacchus drivers) openly invited a discussion, maybe even an argument about what they wrote. But, a discussion never came, nor an argument. Nobody even commented on the Facebook post of the article! We’re deathly afraid of disagreeing with each other directly, and as a result, we’re missing out. Arguing is fun. When we just sit around in our little groups and agree with each other all day long, it’s boring.

As I leave my post as opinions editor to go abroad next semester, I know that the page will be in good hands. What I’m unsure of is whether Sewanee students will continue in the spirit of the Bacchus article, to try and use the opinions page to its full potential; to issue strong, well-written opinions that invite dissent; to ruffle the plumes of birds of a feather.