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Worrisome Reactions to a Disturbance

Guest Column Johnathan N. S. Whitney

On Oct. 6, a "disturbance" occurred in Lobby 7. A lone male was seen to be crying in the middle of the lobby. This lasted for about twenty minutes, until the Campus Police were called in to insure that this person was not on the verge of committing suicide.

Many issues are raised by this incident, and I would like to discuss several of them. The context of this event was my participation in Foundations in the Visual Arts (4.301). The topic of the assigned project was "Body Extension and Performance." My project was to stand alone in the middle of Lobby 7, wearing a suit and tie with the arms of the blazer sewn to the sides, and cry.

My presence in the lobby, in the path of a hurrying crowd of hungry people, forced each passerby to think about what he was seeing. A couple of people were there to see me start, and were therefore "in the know" and not interesting to me. Some people missed me completely. Others saw me and tried their hardest to ignore me, both by diverting their eyes and by physically avoiding me. This was the most common reaction. Only around five people actually picked up enough courage to come up and talk to me. One friendly student even asked me if I needed a hug.

The other people who approached me did so with more an air of fear than anything else. One student stared at me without saying a word for about a minute. A couple of administrators happened to be in the area and were concerned for my safety. They tried to calm me down, but I just kept on crying. It was not my intention to make the situation any easier for them, and I wanted to see what they would do. In the end, as their faint attempts at getting a word from me were in vain, they decided that it was time for the Campus Police to join in the fray. That is where the game ended.

The point by now should be pretty clear. The vast majority who ran into me that day concluded that I was crazy. Why is it that a young woman of about my age should be allowed to cry all she wants in Lobby 7, whereas I merited much more attention and even a police intervention? It seems to me that there are different ways to view the problem. One major issue is that of gender roles in modern society. Men who exhibit emotion in public are seen as being in danger of having a nervous breakdown. Although I am neither a biologist nor a psychiatrist, it would seem logical to me to view crying as a beneficial way of letting an emotion out. Yet, storing emotions within a wall of social lubricants seems to be the norm.

I was encouraged that one administrator stopped to make sure I was all right, especially as I only found out who he was later on when the police were there. However, I remain surprised by the fact that his first reaction upon failing to get me to tell him what was wrong was to get someone to call the police. I was completely passive. I was not threatening to hurt anyone, even myself. I was not inciting a riot, nor was I denouncing President Clinton or President Charles M. Vest, so why did someone have to call the police? What is illegal or merely wrong with publicizing the harmless emotion of sadness in a public spot?

When the administrator found out that I was merely faking my emotion, and had invented the whole thing for a class, he was at first quite annoyed. This would seem understandable if one could assume that my display of emotion had provoked a fear within him. But I ask again, what was I doing to provoke this fear other than simply bringing a private emotion into a public spot in a peaceful manner? I am especially bothered by the fact that the administrator mentioned, after the CPs had left, that if I had applied to his office for permission to do this, nothing "bad" would have happened. Why is it necessary to apply for permission to display emotion?

I can draw two conclusions. They are not universal, but limited to this certain time and experience at MIT, so I can only point to certain directions. There is an obvious self-destructive tendency in western society to hide emotions. This has been a problem for years, but that does not mean that it needs not be rectified. Second, there is an obvious problem with growing bureaucracies. I have been here for only a year, but in that year, it appears MIT's fear of bad press has incited it to take more control of its students' lives. I sense, and maybe the rest of the student body does as well, that MIT is trying to intrude on areas of our lives that should remain our own, all for "our own good." I exaggerate, but has anyone else read 1984 recently?

Jonathan N. S. Whitney is a member of the Class of 2001.