Speaking Out, Standing Alone

by Sara del Nido | 11/7/05 6:00am

At the conclusion of my last column, ("Our Classless Campus," Nov. 1) I suggested that dialogue and discussion are ways to address issues of class on campus. We like to think that the Dartmouth student body is open enough to maturely accept and discuss multiple different viewpoints. But what happens when speaking out is responded to negatively?

When the "white trash" social event was held, a pledge at the sorority involved sent a house-wide blitz objecting to the theme. "This is offensive, racist and just plain wrong," she wrote, urging her house not to attend. Although this pledge's blitz was meant only for her sorority, another pledge, unaware of house confidentiality rules, forwarded the blitz out to a wide range of her friends, both in Greek organizations and unaffiliated. This violation was compounded by a response from one friend, directed at the objecting pledge and sent to the entire recipient list, including members of the sorority involved. This blitz, from a fraternity pledge, was threatening and sexually charged. It mocked grammatical errors in the original blitz, calling the author a "dumb whore." A "dumbass white bitch." It made a vulgar reference to oral sex. The content was, in a word, appalling.

Equally appalling, however, was the lack of a satisfactory response from most recipients. The pledge's house has supported her for speaking out, but have done nothing as an organization to protect and defend her after she was attacked. No statement was issued until the leadership found out that the incident would be publicized by this newspaper, and even then, the statement did not even mention the offensive response made to their pledge. Although the individual messages of support from other sisters were important and admirable, no action was taken to show the house's disgust at this repugnant gesture by the fraternity pledge. He should have been informed that his blitz was offensive to the entire sorority, or that he was not welcome at the sorority from that incident forward. Neither of these things occurred. The response from the sorority was, in short, spineless; it seemed almost as if the house believed that if they down-played the issue for long enough, it would simply go away.

Also absent was any kind of apology for -- or even acknowledgment of -- this incident by the responding pledge's fraternity. The fraternity believes that because this man is "just a pledge," he does not reflect badly on the house. Deborah Carney, director of CFS administration, says that Greek houses must "address how individual members impact the organization as a whole and within the Dartmouth Community." From an interview with a prominent member of this house, who asked to remain anonymous, it seems that the ethic of the fraternity, by sharp contrast, is that each brother is responsible for his own actions. Other brothers' opinions of him may diminish if he commits an unacceptable act towards a non-member, but he will receive no formal sanction from the house itself. This irresponsible attitude represents complicity in an act of sexual aggression. Although the brother I interviewed was quick to point out that his fraternity has "improved their image" with regard to gender issues, the lack of an official response to their own pledge's action shows that they have no genuine concern about the maltreatment of women.

This incident would have become another unreported case if not for the offended pledge's own initiative. It took tremendous courage for her not only to speak out in the first place, but also to be resilient after an attack and force people to pay attention. Her experience would not have been as traumatic if she had had a stronger original network of support. Members of Greek houses should be able to trust that they can have a safe and confidential discussion within their groups. When asked about the forwarded blitz, leadership of the sorority said only that "the house is addressing the issue." This is simply unconvincing. Regardless of rhetoric, very little has actually occurred; the violator was not even asked to come forward. Confidentiality should ideally make sororities true safe spaces. It is disheartening to realize that in this instance, this important norm is not being taken seriously.

As I further investigated this incident, I began to have less and less faith in the ideas of "sisterhood" and "brotherhood" that these Greek houses attempt to promote. If members of a house fail to support or sanction members when it is appropriate, what do these concepts even mean? A Greek house is more than an aggregate of individuals; it is an organization that prides itself on the strength of the group. Members are justified in expecting support from their house as a whole.

Greek houses should make individuals' objections to Greek issues , such as this party's theme, concerns of the entire organization. Houses, if they act, should do so with their organization name attached, because being a member implies being a representative of the house. When pledging, an individual enters into a "brotherhood" or "sisterhood" where they trust that their concerns will be responded to. When there is no unified response, as in this case, the Greek house becomes nothing more than a group of friends who happen to live in the same place. The organization loses its meaning and purpose.

Even more importantly, when a brother or sister is publicly attacked for his or her beliefs, the Greek house has an obligation to make a strong statement in support of their member. Sorority leadership claimed that they did not act as a house because the threatening response was the pledge's personal issue, not a matter of house concern. This again reflects an attitude of irresponsibility.

There are plenty of ways in which organizations could react to objections as a group. The fraternity that co-sponsored the "white trash" event was exemplary in their apology for the offensiveness of their party. This admirable and important action sends a clear statement that they take others' opinions seriously. But there is nothing equally praiseworthy in the actions of the other Greek houses involved in this incident.

To a great extent, the root of this problem is a difference in expectations about how far a house should go in supporting their members, which is not so much the fault of a particular house or individual than a symptom of the Greek system at Dartmouth. But this does not take away from the fact that the Greek houses' actions in this instance were inadequate. Following the "politically correct" line in Greek houses is simply not enough. If no action is taken when the idea of a support network is truly tested, then the reality is clear: it is not a group that can be counted on to support a member who is attacked for dissent.

Members of Greek houses must remember that their actions define their organization. Because of the prevalence of Greek life on campus, houses have a true responsibility to actively contribute to a free environment at Dartmouth. Incidents such as this one must not be taken lightly -- they shape the character of our Greek houses, our student body, and Dartmouth College as a whole.

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