The Cherwell has published a list of the “40 most influential undergraduates at the University of Oxford”. In doing so, they pre-empted this paper’s tradition of a “Top 50”. These lists are the manifestation of the most ugly aspect of this university’s vibrant extra-curricular scene: the perpetuation of the pale, pygmy fame available in this warped little world. There’s a tendency to dismiss this kind of problem with a shrug that says, “it’s all fun and games, we’re just students”. That kind of indifference is deceptive and naïve. It’s precisely the same species of causal nihilism that wafts around whenever being treated like a responsible person doesn’t suit us. The truth is that the way we behave has genuine consequence, for ourselves and others, in the present and in the future. Most of the time we accept that. So, is the fact that Oxford nurtures the vilest kind of ego the biggest problem in the world today? No, surprisingly not. Is it therefore irrelevant? Are we absolved of all responsibility to discourage it? Should we ignore it and even propagate it just because, and perhaps to show, that we are oh-so-aware of the ultimately insignificant events in this ludicrous microcosm? Absolutely not. But that’s exactly what happens, and it makes for an insufferable atmosphere of sycophantic praise and power-crazed bitching. It isolates people, deludes people and, most dangerously, it bores people.
It’s not wrong to want credit for what you’ve achieved. Who would reasonably demand an entirely selfless, egoless state of being? That seems a rather empty kind of existence. But lists like these actively feed the notion that there is such a thing as a ‘BNOC’, or more to the point, that being a ‘BNOC’ is in its self worthwhile. They ignore (or are oblivious to) that familiar criticism of student journalism, that it is largely dependant on friendship circles. Usually, ignoring this fact is fairly harmless – we shouldn’t expect professional journalism at university – but when it comes to selecting individuals it does become a problem. Because the lists are, above all, arbitrary. They come nowhere close to doing what they claim to do because that wouldn’t actually be possible. There aren’t a “Top 50” people here.
But that’s not the worst aspect – it being a failed attempt isn’t inexcusable. We’re all learning and sometimes it’s valid and interesting to compare inherently incomparable things. Fine. What’s repugnant is that the attempt is made at all; that there is a perceived desire among readers, and an evident desire among journalists, to create such lists and then publish them with all the authority and the assumption of informed opinion that we ought to demand of journalism, no matter its calibre. And although Cherwell’s recent venture was witless, sexist and insensitive – all demanding severe criticism of whichever moronic editors gave the green light – the nastiest bit is it being dreamt up at all. And here we face two possible reasons as to why that might happen:
Reason 1: You genuinely want to find the most impressive figures among the student body and celebrate them. It’s futile. That futility renders it not just inaccurate, but pointless and damaging. The active propagation of notions of fame and status foreground a set of values that, in most of our daily life, we would challenge. It encourages greed, superficiality, arrogance, social-climbing and vanity. Fame for fame’s sake is quite obviously vacuous, and where that insidious mole rears it’s head we should strive to whack it back down as fast as possible. It’s evident in our society more widely and replicating it here is unnecessary and unpleasant. Unless…
Reason 2: You are providing a critique of this pseudo-fame, picking on those who so desperately crave it. Sorry Cherwell, sorry OxStu: you don’t get points just for noticing that nobody here is genuinely famous. The lists you publish demonstrate a vicious hypocrisy by selecting a handful of egos and abusing them for wanting to be selected. And not all of them do want to be selected. “But we’re just students, having a laugh!” you may retort. Well of course you are – there’s that convenient shedding of responsibility again. But slander and insult and humiliation don’t come in harmless forms. Your hobby might be a practice run of the real deal, but the consequences don’t necessarily downgrade along with it. If you want to discourage the frenzy of ravenous egos, then don’t feed them. And if you enjoy feeding them because the ensuing scrap is entertaining to you, then you’re a malicious person probably more deserving of pity than criticism.
Does that seem harsh to you? It seems a little harsh to me, too. It’s not surprising that some people here are attracted to the notion of fame. It’s a symptom of the radiation that lingers here – radiation from the history, the alumni, the competiveness and ambition and the arrogance of youth. But some radiation is poisonous. This kind, this hunger for fame, can stop you from doing things for the right reasons and stop you from doing them properly; it simplifies things and takes the colour out of them. Worst of all, it lowers ambitions; it shrinks great, lofty goals into easily struck targets and brings the horizon within touching distance. We may only be at university. And yes, we’re all young and naïve and so on and so forth. But soon we won’t be, and then the aims and passions that many people are finding here will be all that guides them. These lists are certainly only the tip of a very big iceberg, but shaving them off would be a good start to shaping a landscape where the horizon isn’t so close. It makes for a boring view.