Recently, at Beta Theta Pi’s national president’s training, one chapter president suggested to the room that “it’s easy to say, like, at least we don’t pee on our pledges.” I struggled to keep a straight face, but the thinking he so eloquently described is pervasive here at Case Western Reserve University.
There is a persistent myth of exceptionalism in our Greek community—that our fraternities and sororities are concerned exclusively with service and philanthropy rather than, well, peeing on their pledges. And it’s true, our Greek organizations do a great deal of good both for their members and for the campus community as a whole. But we also struggle with the same issues of substance abuse, hazing and most centrally, sexual assault, which plagues Greek life nationally. We cannot ignore these problems, and as a community, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard.
As such, I was disappointed by the recent piece “Fraternity brothers upset by Greek Life sanctions,” which presents the thesis that the Greek Life Office dealt unreasonably with Phi Kappa Psi, Sigma Phi Epsilon and Delta Tau Delta, without ever quite coming out in support of it.
This is good, as the argument is untenable. At a basic level, membership review is carried out exclusively by a fraternity’s national organization and alumni. The GLO had no involvement in the process. To me, though, the core of the issue is in the quote that the article gives from a former member of Phi Psi that “[We’re] not terrible people, but we’re being judged purely on some questionable things that, in my opinion, should just be accepted as normal on a college campus.”
Generally speaking, I don’t believe in bad people. People don’t typically decide that what they’re doing is wrong and then decide to keep doing it. They rationalize, they make excuses, they fight the cognitive dissonance. No one believes themselves to be a bad person, and even people who repeatedly do horrible things can still, in other contexts, be incredibly kind or selfless or loyal. This kind of complexity resists labels. So I have no difficulty at all in believing that most of the men suspended in the recent membership reviews are not “bad people.” I’m actually quite confident that the vast majority did nothing terribly transgressive.
The real question, though, concerns what kinds of behavior we want to normalize in our community. I would argue that substance abuse is not something we collectively want to accept, but the exact definition of abuse is somewhat open to interpretation. Attempting to distinguish moderately unhealthy risk-taking typical of adolescents from an unacceptable drug problem is outside the scope of this piece.
Concerning sexual assault, however, there can be no quibbling. And there can also be no denying that this is an issue among fraternities on campus: In December of 2014 the Greek Life Office called together all of the Interfraternity Congress presidents and asked them not to hold any social events for the remainder of the semester due to the large number of ongoing sexual misconduct investigations involving Greek men.
No one would dispute the claim that sexual assault is not to be tolerated as such, but I feel the need to emphasize this point lest its overriding importance be disputed. Nothing can prepare you for what you will feel when (and it really is more a question of when than if) you hear that someone you care for has been sexually assaulted.
When a friend told me from a hundred miles away while I sat in class one morning that she had been raped over the weekend, I truly understood for the first time that not one person more should have to experience that kind of degradation. We cannot consider anything less than the total elimination of sexual assaults by our brothers to be acceptable. And we cannot distance ourselves entirely from the actions of those men to whose personal development we have promised ourselves.
Fundamental to Greek life is the notion that every action I take reflects not only on myself, but also on my fraternity. The actions of the members of a fraternity cannot be meaningfully separated from the actions of the fraternity, and through his behavior each individual helps to establish a culture. But that culture cannot then be deconstructed into the specific people and actions which created it—rooting out cultural problems is not as simple as condemning the actions of the few worst offenders. Ultimately, containing no rapists is an absurdly low standard by which to justify the existence of an organization.
We have to do better. These membership reviews are unfair to the majority of the members suspended, but when we fail to hold ourselves and our brothers to the values ostensibly so central to our organizations, we must accept them as inevitable. The burden rests on us, through our individual words and actions, to make this community into what we want it to be. If every member of Greek life took this mission to heart, it would be a trivial task. Probably, it will not turn out to be so simple. But we have no choice other than to always strive to live in accordance with our values so that each of us leaves a positive impact on our chapter and on our campus community.