Not All Frats Are Created Equal

by Robert Butts | 11/1/05 6:00am

Before I begin, let me administer a little quiz. Given: carrots are vegetables. Given: carrots are orange.

Statement: all vegetables are orange. True?

Pencils down. Please form a line to receive your gold stars.

It probably did not take much work to solve that problem. You did not even need to invoke the rules of formal logic. All you needed to do was to supply a counterexample from your own memory -- broccoli is also a vegetable, and it is not orange. When such counterexamples exist, it ought to be easy to avoid the fallacy of assuming that the characteristics of any few individuals are necessarily representative of the larger categories those individuals belong to.

Unfortunately, when the individuals in question are Greek houses rather than fruits and vegetables, even Dartmouth students seem to struggle with this bit of common sense. Take, for example, this weighty aside from The Dartmouth's most recent editorial ("Verbum Ultimum," Oct. 28): "the fact is that frats don't prevent sexual assault, the Dartmouth culture of excess or the problems of a male-centric social scene."

Set aside the cryptic references to Dartmouth's "culture of excess" (whatever, exactly, that may mean) and the apparently problematic "male-centric social scene" (whatever, exactly, that may mean as well), and the fact that preventing sexual assault is the task of all Dartmouth students -- all conscientious humans, even -- rather than some unique duty of the Greek system. The implication of The Dartmouth's accusation is that fraternities are unfriendly to women and unconcerned about their safety.

Blanket assumptions like these make for moving rhetoric. They also tend to fall apart under closer examination. To begin with, the behavior of any one fraternity should not be taken as indicative of the entire Greek system any more than the color of a carrot is indicative of the color of all vegetables. Different houses have different records when it comes to issues of safety and sexual assault, and while The Dartmouth and other campus groups are right in roundly condemning houses that prove themselves lax in this regard, no one is served when all houses are painted with this same brush.

More importantly, as typically happens when the Greek system is discussed, The Dartmouth's assertion ignores the existence of coed fraternities. As a brother of Alpha Theta, a coed fraternity, I am proud to be part of an organization whose very existence disproves the notion that fraternities must be hostile to members of the opposite gender. In a coed house, there is no opposite gender. Instead, brothers and sisters live together, support each other and look out for each other's safety. We are the counterexamples that undermine so much of the received wisdom about Greek houses and gender issues.

Dartmouth's Greek system is not a monolith. It is composed of individual houses, each with their own individual memberships and unique house cultures. And it will be impossible to have a real, productive discussion about the role and responsibilities of the Greek system on this campus until the voices leading this discussion move beyond blanket assumptions about some mythical group of cookie-cutter "Greek organizations." Even drawing distinctions between fraternities and sororities (and, all too rarely, coeds) fails to do justice to the widely varying houses that populate those larger categories.

I am not arguing that blanket statements, like the one in this most recent "Verbum Ultimum," are necessarily made out of ill will. There are many times when, for the purpose of brevity and argument, it makes sense to address issues at the category level rather than the individual level. But when the intent is to level accusations or assign blame, it is critical to remember that the parts are not the same as the whole.