Article Image
Illustration by Kevin Vo

Some of us get worked up about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, politics, race, inequality and all that. Go, you guys. Keep fighting the good fight.

I get worked up about the elevator. I think there's a lot of injustice between floors M and 14 of John Jay Hall—injustice that, I hope, will disappear as soon as we recognize it.

Imagine this: You crawl out of bed on the 14th floor 10 minutes before your 8:40 a.m. class and schlep your crusty-eyed self over to the elevator. You greet your two or three equally miserable morning warriors in the corridor and watch the red digital numbers climb steadily up to 14. You hear the ding, the doors open, and you're in.

Now it's moving down. It stops at 13. You look at your watch—8:37. It's moving down again. It stops at 12. 8:38. Down. Stop. Down. Stop. Sandwiched between a blockade of backpacks and the wall of the now-full elevator, you struggle to break your arm free, and look again at your watch—8:39. Down. It stops—at floor five.

“Ugh...” A unanimous, ubiquitous, universal groan. You and everyone else in the elevator are unhappy, indignant. Now we're going to be late because this stupid, obnoxious individual on the lowest floor decided that it was too early to take the stairs. “Let's all stare menacingly at whoever this is to make them feel really bad about themselves.” All tacitly agree.

The door opens. All stare menacingly at the 5-foot-1, bespectacled girl struggling with a stack of textbooks. She's embarrassed. “Oh. I'll just take the stairs.” She scampers away. All look back at their cell phones, affirmed, content.

Now, I'm not going to defend that girl. For people who have such easy access to the staircase, like the residents of floor five, it's unfair, and probably impractical, too, to hold up a full elevator, especially in the few minutes before classes start. But I'm also not concerned about her behavior. What concerns me is ours. 

We have moralized the elevator. We've turned public transportation into a courthouse—where the good are self-affirmed and the bad are made to feel like they should take the elevator straight to hell. This is a problem, not only for the pain it causes, but also for what it says about us as a community. We're passionately moralistic, which is great, but too often it's in the wrong ways. Some claim their passive aggression is motivated by concern for the greater good. They say their intention is to discourage the people of floor five from using the elevator in the future. I say nay. It's been four months—if they haven't stopped yet, they're not stopping any time soon. So it comes down to a question of how to respond to wrongdoing, how to react when someone annoys you, once the wrong has been done. 

It doesn't take a doctorate in ethics to let one see that purposefully inflicting pain on a wrongdoer, once they've hit the down arrow and there is no hope of preventing them from impeding your morning commute, is self-serving. We got rid of “an eye for an eye” a while ago. And if we stopped to think about what we're doing on the elevator every Monday morning, we'd get rid of that behavior, too. 

The problem is that we're not thinking about it. We're doing a great job with the big problems: We protest both sides of just about every political issue, we volunteer in underprivileged parts of the city, we fly across the world to build irrigation systems in Morocco. We fight the good fight. But when it comes to the elevator and the smaller ways in which we might make someone else's day just a little bit easier, we're not getting it right. 

So if we're going to be moral about the little things, like the elevator, the laundry room, and the dining hall, let's think about them as much as we think about the big things. And if we don't feel like working that hard, let's just smile at the girl when the doors open on floor five.

The author is a Columbia College first-year with a prospective major in philosophy. He lives on the 12th floor of John Jay.  

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact

John Jay elevators Morality judgement ethics
From Around the Web