An old friend, who I'll call J, is in San Francisco for a conference. It’s been a year since we last saw each other—another conference. We run that circuit. This night is one of those rare moments we’ve seen each other outside of an event with suited-up adults and boring keynotes we do our best to avoid. The one constant of both our lives, when they intersect, is that we are the only teenagers most places we go. At the white-tablecloth Italian restaurant we enter, we are the youngest people in the room. As we do, we immediately start talking about fanfiction and masturbation and hookups and pop music. There's a genteel elderly couple sitting next to us, conversing about a timeshare. 

I avoid eye contact with them, but I'm pretty sure they look scandalized.

J and I belt out Blank Space in his ritzy suite at the Prescott Hotel at 11 PM, and he says that I can crash overnight. The next morning I get on BART at 7 in the morning—earlier than I’ve been awake in weeks—and my mind wanders. Like an old-fashioned movie theater projector, it sends me images in flashes: 

Paper sailboats I never learned how to make, drifting slowly away from me down a river I dare not swim to catch them. 

Bigger boats—boats in the marina at Jack London Square one night in late January. It’s after midnight. There's a boy with a contagious smile standing next to me, and we have managed to walk from Berkeley to Oakland, sans intentionality or direction--an accidental fourteen-mile trek in the night. 

Speedboat at Lake Chelan. I am a loudmouthed ten-year-old, hair cropped short, four years into glasses and still remarkably unable to pull them off. We ride the choppy waves and leave a bubbling wake as white and frothy as the foam seeping over the edges of a beer stein. We inner-tube and my sister flips off into the water, but when she comes up she’s smiling. 

Sunny Capitola Beach and summer camp camaraderie and ice-cream-lipped-stickiness and two years later, summer camp crush putting his arm around me in the dark that flickers with Mary and Max, a black-and-white animated movie that almost makes me cry. 

Sunlight pooling on the couch where I’m reclining lazily on New Year’s Day, watching Bob’s Burgers for two hours with friends, being completely unproductive and feeling no guilt--a guiltlessness I feel again in a gym, with the yoga instructor almost a year later who says gently, "Let your body do absolutely nothing," as we lie back into shavasana. 

There are no pictures of these moments, and occasionally, I wonder if there should be. Social media is saturated with snapshots of euphoria, all gleaming smiles, glistening waves, pretty boats, and the prettier people sailing on them. Sometimes I find myself scrolling aimlessly and getting jealous of the pictures, of the people. There’s the white girl who everyone went to high school with, she of the big smile, bikini top and cutoff shorts. She's perched on someone’s shoulders, raising a PBR to the sky at a music festival in a desert. There are three teenagers from the cross country team, having the time of their lives as they crouch over a precipice about to dive into clear blue water. 

And then there’s me, with my Europe vacation album and my grainy screenshotted Snapchats, posed pictures with my freshman year Hall Association, or TEDxRedmond, or a million other things but—there's no photo of the time I burst into laughter on the street while standing behind a couple who had just said a not-very-funny thing about Burgermeister but they were so happy and I was, too, happy to be happy and to be alive. Not everyone feels a sense of inner warmth from listening to the genial conversations of strangers. Happiness says a lot about your personality and values, more so than humiliation or anger or even grief. Fart in church, get maligned by an acquaintance, or face the death of a loved one, and those reactions are all predictable; but happiness, like Aslan in The Chronicles of Narnia, is not a tame or predictable lion. The tl;dr version: sometimes, weird shit makes us happy.

But in a social environment that pushes for constant documentation, "pics or it didn't happen," all of us accruing digital stacks of photo evidence to rival FBI dossiers, I fear that we narrow our conceptions of what "true happiness" can be. We try too hard to cast our experiences in the light we see as common and acceptable--just check out the Instagram account/art project "Socality Barbie" to get an idea. 

But there is so much joy to be found in idiosyncrasy, and the kinds of things that don't make for good pictures. My mom still asks me to take more photos, though, and I realize the value when I'm clicking through her monstrously large "iOS Photos" album on Facebook and find myself tugged back to moments in the past with greater clarity. It's good to have photos to look back on. But it shouldn't feel like a necessity when you're doing something you love, with people who matter, to catalogue every moment. I know many people who feel compelled to background themselves in social outings just so they can snap picture after picture. It may seem like a way to extend an experience, to forestall the inevitability of endings.

But gazing at pixels is no way to re-live a life.

Sitting next to each other in the dark, J and I start talking about mortality. 

“We shouldn’t be sad that our footsteps in the sand will get blown over, we should be glad that we got to go to the beach at all,” I say slowly, with the feeling of unwrapping an exotic fruit and discovering what lies inside--realization and action, not one before the other.

It occurs to me as I’m walking away from the Prescott Hotel, down the streets of SF in the pale dim morning, air nipping around my ears like the breath of absent passersby, that he and I didn’t get a picture together.

But that’s OK, I think. 

I blink, the flash goes off, and the camera I call memory fills with light.

An open letter to The Atlantic's Caitlin Flanagan on political correctness

Dear Ms. Flanagan,

As a UC Berkeley student and a longtime reader of The Atlantic, I was very interested to hear what you had to say on Real Time with Bill Maher regarding political correctness on college campuses. I hoped to hear you provide a nuanced analysis of some of the reasons many students ask for trigger warnings and seek to identify microaggressions. I was disappointed to instead hear you launch into an ad hominem attack questioning the intellectual capabilities of college students. “When kids come to college, they are by definition ignorant. They don’t know anything yet!” you said blithely, going on to describe us again as “poor kids who don’t know anything yet” before saying “the whole system is now being run by these kids.”

In 2010, I gave a TED Talk entitled “What adults can learn from kids,” and went on to speak at conferences around the world about the need for increased student voice in education (particularly K-12 education reform). This need exists because unfortunately, students do not generally have much of a say in the vast majority of schools—and yes, I’m including colleges in that estimation. At UC Berkeley, we were not even invited to the meeting where UC Regents raised our tuition—without taking the time to hear the concerns of students. California’s Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom openly criticized that action when he addressed my political science class last semester. A system where students like me slept on the cold ground of an on-campus building, Wheeler Hall, over the course of several nights simply to make our voices heard in protest over these tuition hikes is not a “whole system being run by these kids.” 

Mario Savio, a leader of Berkeley's Free Speech Movement.

It’s unfortunate, too, because the level of awareness and connection among my peers is unprecedented. Although our weapons of protest have certainly evolved since the days of Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement, I would argue that a higher percentage of students is taking action on causes we care about now than ever. Thanks in large part to the democratizing power of the internet we grew up with, students my age have founded technology education non-profits, started popular magazines, done ground-breaking research, and fostered greater awareness about racial justice. Although we are certainly imperfect when it comes to our attitudes on a variety of social issues, we are more tolerant than our parents’ generation; according to Pew, young people continue to be the strongest proponents of same-sex marriage, with even 61% of young Republicans in support.

Your supposition in the face of all this that we are “poor kids who don’t know anything yet” makes me wonder what sorts of attitudes you would like us to learn instead. You said that college students are “the inheritors of 30 years of identity politics, and that’s part of the problem…that means that instead of saying we all have general principles by which we seek to live, that we’ll stand up…for the feminist cause, for the racial or ethnic cause.” Of course I support working toward general principles of empathy, kindness, equality, and justice. But our genders, races, and ethnicities may preclude some of us from receiving those things. You can find a testament to this in the stories of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, or the 35 women and the empty chair on the New York Magazine cover. Choosing to act in the name of unity and ignore the disparities that stem from our differences precludes us from creating a just, kind society. That’s why it’s Black Lives Matter and not All Lives Matter, why it’s feminism and not egalitarianism. Dismissing identity relies on the wishful belief that our identities don’t matter. But until African-American boys aren’t cautioned from an early age to behave a certain way around law enforcement, and until mothers like mine don’t tell their young daughters such words of advice as “Always choose being raped if the alternative is being killed,” our identities do matter, very much. 

You discuss microaggressions as the invention of privileged young people who aren’t paying attention to bigger problems. In actuality, the term “microaggression” was not coined by a privileged group of students; it was the psychiatrist and Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce who first used the term in an academic setting. Pierce wrote in 1974, “These [racial] assaults to black dignity and black hope are incessant and cumulative. Any single one may be gross. In fact, the major vehicle for racism in this country is offenses done to blacks by whites in this sort of gratuitous neverending way. These offenses are microaggressions. Almost all black-white racial interactions are characterized by white put-downs, done in automatic, preconscious, or unconscious fashion. These mini disasters accumulate. It is the sum total of multiple microaggressions by whites to blacks that has pervasive effect to the stability and peace of this world.” This language is more radical in its estimation of long-term effects than most of the discussion around microaggressions on college campuses today. If you want to criticize microaggression theory, you should be spending your time not lambasting “privileged and pampered” kids but rather challenging a respected professor who has spent decades researching racism and its effects. I can understand, of course, that this may be a harder fight to pick.

The year I started at Berkeley, everyone on campus received the book Freedom’s Orator, about Free Speech Movement leader Mario Savio. Enthralled, I read all 544 pages. So it was with great interest that I noticed your mention of Savio in your Atlantic piece, “That’s Not Funny”: “frat boys and other campus punksters regularly flout the thought police by staging events along elaborately racist themes, events that, while patently vile, are beginning to constitute the free-speech movement of our time. The closest you’re going to get to Mario Savio—sick at heart about the operation of the machine and willing to throw himself upon its gears and levers—is less the campus president of Human Rights Watch than the moron over at Phi Sigma Kappa who plans the Colonial Bros and Nava-Hos mixer.” This statement implies that fraternity brothers acting in racist ways is a recent and modern phenomenon, when in truth, as the Washington Post points out in its thoroughly-researched article “The Long, Fraught Racial History of American Fraternities,” fraternities have been flying Confederate flags, banning non-white students from rushing, and worse for decades. Don’t fool yourself: belittling minorities by dressing up as stereotypes or popularizing slogans like “No means yes, yes means anal” (as members of DKE chanted at Yale, and Texas Tech fraternity brothers wrote on a banner) doesn’t make you edgy or cool or an activist. It makes you an a**hole. A**holes are not the unintended spawn of political correctness; they’re the offspring of cultures and families who don’t challenge themselves to analyze race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and inequalities in our society.

Challenging ourselves, and providing better education about inequality, is a lasting way to address racism, sexism, and classism among students. Someday, maybe we will have an America where students learn more nuanced perspectives on history and culture than our traditional Eurocentric diet, where we have open and honest conversations about race and gender and sexuality in our classrooms, and where people learn to respect each other before anyone ever has to call them out. Right now, in many parts of the country, we go to school with people who (roughly) look like us and talk like us and whose parents make the same amount of money as our parents. You claim that college students are being self-infantilizing in our quickness to be sensitive to members of other races or cultures, but it is the kind of insulation we grow up with in our K-12 educational experiences that provides the real infantilization. 

You have helped to propagate the false dichotomy between freedom of speech and sensitivity; the truth that I’ve experienced in my life so far is that creating environments of respect engenders more openness and free speech. College student KellyNoel Waldorf wrote an article about “coming out” as poor at Duke, aptly describing how difficult it is to reveal identities that we may not share with the majority of our peers. If your friends toss around disparaging jokes about "welfare queens," are you really going to reveal that you spent a year on state-subsidized healthcare? If your fraternity brothers, who yell homophobic epithets and laugh at anti-gay slurs with impunity, demean your sexual orientation, can you really talk about being gay? 

Speech may be free for them, but not you. 

And we are losing out on having important conversations because of it. If you seek to defend free speech, try putting yourself in the shoes of those people who society often silences. Many people argue that we are coddling ourselves, and that our bubbles of liberal sensitivity make us unprepared for the world after college. To that, I’d say that we create what we want to see in our societies in our schools. And I surely hope that you want your sons to live in a world where we are just and kind, sensitive and free.


Adora Svitak
UC Berkeley Class of 2018

Mind over matter

I read a Salon article, "Mindfulness is a Capitalist Grift: How Faux Enlightenment Maintains our Status Quo" today, finding it pretty relevant to the experiences of lots of students around my age who are interning at "cool" companies this summer. Whether at small startups in Silicon Valley or chic non-profits that attract millennials, sprawling tech companies or booming media organizations, buzzwords that encourage us to take breaks, be mindful, and improve our physical and mental health dust the air more thickly than pollen in the springtime.

There's nothing wrong with encouraging your employees to be healthy and happy. If you want to set up a nap room in your office (I'm looking at you, Arianna Huffington) or buy your workers free subscriptions to meditation sites, power to you. But what is obnoxious about the motivations of some workplace improvements is that they are diametrically opposed to their origins. These Buddhist-inspired (and now heavily secularized) ideas of meditation and mindfulness are supposed to encourage greater productivity, which in turn implies the production and consumption of more material possessions. Yet Siddhartha Gautama considered the suffering he saw in the world and walked away from his material possessions. Mindfulness is not supposed to be a pathway to profit.

It's as if you're supposed to be mindful, but not too mindful, lest you start asking questions that make you uncomfortable (and maybe unproductive), like "Why am I working so hard on something I don't even believe in?" "Do I really need all this s**t I own?" "Am I causing harm to others by participating in, and benefitting from, an unfair system?"

I think about the last one a lot, less because of my current place in the system and more because of what I will potentially do after school. When people asked me as a kid, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I never answered anything that would make me even remotely rich. I said things like "teacher," "writer," "principal," and the inexplicable "philanthropist," without explaining how I would accrue the savings to get there. Sometimes I wonder if this would have been different if my parents had loved their jobs. If I'd seen my dad spouting eloquent soliloquies about the beauty of computer science or dreams of raises and promotions, maybe then I would've wanted to work 9 to 5 in a corner office somewhere, and try to work my way up a ladder with top rungs so distant it seemed to stretch to the heavens.

This is what I actually saw: my dad working hard to stay afloat, not climb a ladder. I saw him stressing out before big deadlines, leaving early in the morning and staying at work late at night. Around midnight, I'd wake up to the sound of the floors creaking and see him in the hallway, bags under his eyes and laptop in hand. My sister and I joked about growing up at Microsoft because of all the time we spent there -- we'd go there for a "quick stop" so my dad could "check on something," quick stops that would turn into several-hour-long detours. Detours, for my sister and I, through labyrinthine hallways dark as candle-lit restaurants. Detours, for my dad, through uninspiring lines of code.

It gave me an odd sense of guilt to slowly realize, as a kid, that my parents didn't do the things they loved, much as they told me to follow my dreams. People say "I wish I had never been born!" in a hateful way in arguments with their parents a lot; the only times I've thought it seriously, it's when I'm thinking about what my parents wanted to be when they were around my age. My mom thought about studying journalism when she came to the United States for college, but she took a job that conflicted with the hours of the journalism classes for the sake of financial stability. And sometimes I still see the journalist who could have been, in the moments when she draws out stories from just about anyone--asking a question like "What kind of void in your life are you trying to fill with buying things?" to a taxi driver (who'd been telling her about his debt problems) we'd known for all of one hour, or starting conversations with waiters in vegan restaurants and piano movers in Washington Square Park alike.

And there were a lot of times when I wished my dad hadn't made his (very sane) decision to work in software when he could have schlepped around the country living the tormented life of a postdoctoral student looking for teaching positions. It would have been really hard, but much easier without kids along. And maybe then he could look out at auditoriums of bright-eyed students, and explain his doctoral thesis on semi-classical dynamical models of vibrational spectra to people much smarter than his teenage daughter who never took high school physics.

Instead of fulfilling work, they got really sweet health insurance that bought me more pairs of glasses than I've ever needed. Shelves upon shelves of books. Apartments in Europe for a month-long stint abroad. Organic produce from Whole Foods. My education.

"I'm only able to consider doing things I love because you guys did things you hated," I blurted to my mom.

"That's how it works," my mom said. "One generation does something they don't like, you do something you like. If you don't do something you like, I would think we failed."

"So you're saying if I was a millionaire because of...uhhh...I dunno, working in advertising at Coca-Cola, you would think you failed?"

"Well, I wouldn't brag about it," my mom said, eyebrows raised.

People have asked me, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" since I was a kid, but now I actually think seriously about the answer, and my uncertainty. Perhaps this uncertainty is born from the clash between the values of self-reliance and self-interest all my high school American lit reading inculcated me with, and the values of self-sacrifice for collective good (presuming a definition of "collective" that equals family and "good" that equals financial stability, anyway) my parents' actions and my extended family have exemplified.

If I choose to fulfill my dreams, perhaps at the cost of financial stability, am I selfish?

If I choose to sacrifice the things I want to do in the name of greater financial stability, am I passionless?

In the end, I'm reminded of mindfulness because too often the way that meditation and other techniques for R&R function in the corporate world is to serve as distractions from a discomforting reality -- churning out products at the cost of our environment or children laboring in factories, or advertising goods that people don't really need, or creating apps to help people send self-destructing 10-sec photos (much as I may wear those shirts, love some of those ads, or appreciate Snapchat) is not really affecting the world that positively. And I think from the moment we're born, we want to affect the world. We toddle around and try to put everything in our mouths and on some level, we want to think, I matter, I can change things. That hope should never go away. Being "mindful" in the name of increasing productivity merely puts a Band-Aid on our feelings of insignificance; instead, let's work toward a world where our goals are larger than increasing profits, and our opportunities to matter are more plentiful than our opportunities to forget that once, we cared about mattering.

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