Cupid’s Crooked Arrow

BY CULLIN O’BRIEN

If only there were a Valentine’s Day equivalent to Christmas’s Scrooge. Yet even if there were one, it wouldn’t be an exactly appropriate way to characterize my message. I’m not trying to take the life out of Valentine’s Day. I’m just saying that the Harvard University Valentine’s Day matchmaking project was (for a lack of a good vocabulary coupled with too much TV) wrong.

What do I mean? Answer: I’m not saying that it was wrong to “hook people up.” I’m all for rubbing and love-a-dubbing, dancing and being in love-ing (or however Lenny Kravitz sings it). Could the name of the venue – The Big Easy – have been any more fitting? But damn! The survey should not have asked about racial or religious preferences in matching couples.

In case you don’t know what I’m talking about up to this point, then this paragraph is for you. (For those of you who filled out the survey, or know what I’m talking about, skip to the next paragraph and try to think of a better name of a place to hook people up, besides The Big Easy – if you open up a place with that name, you’ll probably be a must visit the next time the E! show “Wild-On” visits Boston.) From what I understand, there was an event to hook up single people for Valentine’s Day while at the same time raising money for charity. Anyone who was a graduate student at Harvard University could participate. In order to get hooked up with other singles, a participant had to fill out a survey. People would be matched with the 10 most compatible people, according to survey answers. People got their matches and had a chance to meet them at a downtown Boston nightclub. The survey questions generally ranged from (unfortunately I can’t remember the exact wording of each question, so this is my best approximation) the difficult and trite – “What are three words that best describe you?” or “What’s your ideal vacation spot?” – to even more ridiculous or problematic questions like, “What’s your racial preference in a mate, if any?” and “What’s your religious preference in a mate, if any?” One had to pay five bucks to see the matches (for charity).

You might say: So what’s the big deal? People have fundamental preferences with respect to whom they want to date. Those preferences range from whether a potential date smokes, likes classical music or is of a certain race or religion. There’s nothing wrong with that. Nor is there anything wrong with setting up a match making service that lets people make potential mate/date selections on the basis of those preferences

I say: Bah Humbug! As a practical matter, nobody was going to get married after meeting their Big Easy match. Or at least nobody went into the survey with that frame of mind. We all watch “Tempation Island” (and of course we watch “Survivor,” too, Nick). Matchmaking surveys are a good laugh, an ego booster or just something quirky to do. To say that the survey should have taken fundamental preferences seriously is too much. It was about meeting people, and raising money for charity. Race and religion should not have been relevant.

The fact that race and religion were relevant is smelly (and that smell is of fishes, not of roses). If the survey was really about getting down and dirty, i.e., real match-making, it would have asked things like, “What’s your preference for height, weight, hair length, dentition, bust-size?” (I imagine that lots of people would be outraged about that … how ironic!) Therefore, to validating racial and religious preferences was gratuitous and improper.

But besides that, how boring! What a great chance to take a concept of diversity to its utopian extreme. Just imagine … “Random Meeting Mixer: No preferences, just put your name in a hat, and, at random, you’re matched up with anyone!” And if the students of this institution want more interaction than what now exists (I’m sure many bridges are crossed with the “Oh-I’m-sorry’s,” or the “Oh-excuse-me’s,” or “The-acoustics-in-here-suck’s,” that fill our comfortable classrooms) then the random survey was the chance to make that happen. Unfortunately, the survey set up an unwarranted barrier to an ideal and exciting mixing.

Back to the gratuitous and improper. Notwithstanding another lost opportunity to really mix-up the beautiful, brilliant and awesome graduate student body of Harvard University, the survey is a perfect law school hypothetical. Was the survey illegal? I’m not yet well versed in this area of the law, but things like 42 U.S.C. Section 1981, Massachusetts anti-discrimination statutes and anti-discrimination common law are at least worth looking into. And I’m a good sport for it. (Eight hour take-homes, final papers and in-class write-until-your-hand-muscles-stop-working exams makes one a sport for just about any hypothetical.) That’s not a threat, it’s just a disclaimer.

Whatever your sociological stance is on the idiosyncrasies of fundamental preferences, as a normative matter I think that any private system that separates individuals on the basis of incoherent and trivial distinctions should be challenged. I’m not talking about regulating the completely personal realm of dating preferences. In general, people should be free to choose whichever dates they want. But the completely personal realm isn’t all encompassing. And a university, which supposedly has a serious interest in promoting diversity, should not be able to divide and isolate its students, on the basis of race or religion, in dating or match-making events. Even Bob Jones University walks on thin ice.

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