Right and "Right"

by Jordan Osserman | 11/17/10 11:00pm

Apparently words have more power than I thought. Last Saturday, I was hanging out with a group of poets visiting from Washington University who wanted to see a "Dartmouth party." A friend and I took them over to a fraternity that was hosting one. As soon as I entered the house, brothers began whispering to one another and pointing at me. I was in the basement for less than a minute before two brothers surrounded me.

"Are you Jordan Osserman?" one of them asked. Caught off guard, I offered to shake hands. The brothers declined and refused to tell me their names.

"How can you have the nerve to drink our beer after what you wrote in The D?"

"I haven't been drinking your beer," I replied I hadn't.

"Get out," the brother said. They both stood inches away from me, grinning and gearing up for a fight. Had I refused to leave, I'm certain they would have beaten me up. Scared, I quietly complied; they both followed me as I approached the exit, jeering at me on my way up the stairs. Needless to say, the visitors weren't impressed with the party.

It's a sad state of affairs when fraternity brothers feel so offended by the presence of an individual who's criticized them that they can't even tolerate seeing the person in their basement during an open party. At an institution that claims to honor free speech, the fanatical right-wing refrain "Love it or leave it" was ringing in my ears as I exited the house.

Yet the event signified something much more intense than an attack on dissent; it was indicative of the utter poverty of humanity and maturity among many Dartmouth students towards anyone they consider an outsider. At any given frat party, students can be blacked out, belligerent and screaming incoherently, and nobody will give them a second glance. But because I dared to write that one house's hazing practices are illegal which they are I suddenly became a social germ that the brothers were hell-bent on exterminating.

After the incident, a pledge from that house whom I once considered a friend sent me an e-mail defending his brothers' actions. He concluded the message writing, "i am the only person in [the fraternity] concerned about your feelings, and want you to now [sic] what i think."

Repeatedly, students have reminded me that, as owners of the space, houses have the "right" to deny entrance to whomever they want, as if that's an appropriate response to hearing about my humiliating experience feeling targeted, threatened and taunted for voicing my opinion. While the meaning of "private property" does not escape me, I find it shocking that students immediately resort to property ownership as an excuse for intimidating behavior. Do we really need to be told that what's a "right" is not always right?

Why is it that brothers so quickly jump to anger, fear and exclusion at the slightest criticism of their hallowed traditions? What could have been so threatening about me? And why did two brothers both obviously stronger than I have to team up to confront me? I received a plethora of vitriolic comments on my most recent column ("Hazy Thinking," Nov. 9) arguing that my opposition to hazing displayed "psychological weakness," reaffirming what hazing and last Saturday's incident is really about: brute strength. One commenter even researched and quoted my Facebook bio, as if exposing the author (and his potential "weaknesses") disables his message. Yet not a single person actually contacted me over e-mail or in person to discuss what I had said.

If I so offended the brothers at that house by "sorely misunderstand[ing]" what their "practices" are all about, as the pledge wrote in his e-mail to me after the party, then why didn't anybody in the house contact me to set the record straight? Why was their only reaction to resort to bullying the moment they saw me at their party?

It's no wonder people who criticize aspects of Dartmouth often resort to anonymity. On this campus, students who step out of line don't get to debate their opponents; they receive taunts and threats. "Do not expect to be welcome everywhere on campus if you lambast with absolutely no idea what you speak of," my fellow student and former friend wrote to me. At a college as small and Greek-centric as ours, I guess that means I'd better start apologizing to the Inter-Fraternity Council if I want to feel safe socializing with friends in their spaces or introducing outsiders to the "Dartmouth experience."

The vast majority of people to whom I relayed this story expressed genuine sympathy toward me. Yet at the same time, hardly anyone seemed surprised or outraged. We are complicit with a campus culture that promotes childish behavior and playground antics (to say nothing of homophobia and violence) and it's not the case nationwide. The Washington University students were shocked and appalled at the brothers' pathetic display of drunken machismo. If these are the traditions that set Dartmouth apart from its peer institutions, I think it's time we reconsider what's so special about this place after all.