By Erin Moyer || Senior Editor
I started to write this fresh off Tuesday’s debate. You know the one. You were probably there! Are fraternities good or bad for F&M’s campus? However you come down on the topic of discussion, that was such a cool event. That was such a cool event. How neat to see our nationally-seated Debate Team in action. How great to see a packed house. How cool to walk out of the gym amid thoughtful conversation. I left Mayser feeling invigorated and inspired.
Then I went home and read Noah Siedman’s editorial. And after that, I just felt confused. I’m really happy Siedman wrote his article, because I think it’s really, really important to talk about Greek life on F&M’s campus. I think it’s important to talk about talking about Greek life on F&M’s campus. And I think it’s important to talk, and talk about talking, in general. Campus discourse is the best. We need more people like Siedman, who put themselves out there and chime into the conversation. And it’s for that reason that I’m continuing the conversation now. Siedman’s article is a valuable piece for discussion for all it does—and crucially, does not—contain. As his piece evidences, we keep dancing around what our fraternities do and do not do, and we keep missing the big takeaways.
What confused me most about Siedman’s piece, I think, was the seeming contradiction of his message. Perhaps my interpretation of his article is incorrect, but from the tone he struck, it almost sounded as though Siedman were electing not to stand up and speak on behalf of fraternities. As he put it, he “was tired of being silenced,” as were all his Greek “brothers and sisters,” yet he would not speak–nor would said brothers and sisters–until all could do so “on equal footing,” in a room and a space not so “stratified.” Analyzing the place of Greek life, Siedman wrote, “needs to be done in a dialogue, not a debate or a forum.”
Well, fine. But I need to clarify some finer points here. First, I want to straighten one thing out with Siedman’s article. The oddly gracious tone of “we’ll sit this out until it happens in a fair space,” I think, troubled me the most. As much I can appreciate the theoretical respect implied here, it’s misleading. It wasn’t really that you “sat this one out”; Fraternity brothers were not allowed to participate. As Julia Cinquegrani cataloged in a news article two weeks ago, the Interfraternity Council (IFC) forbade fraternity brothers from joining in the debate, even though the Debate Team personally invited them to participate. So, you couldn’t say your piece. Your own organization was who “silenced” you. And that’s an important thing to remember. So, should this have been a dialogue? I’ll talk about that more in a second, but remember that you were certainly invited to make it a bit more similar to one.
In a similar vein, Siedman argues in his closing that the debate was the wrong medium for such important discourse. Instead, he “believe[s] that the conversations that follow[ed] [the debate are] where change and progress will be made and where understanding will be reached.” Yes, the really important part of Tuesday’s debate would be found outside of Mayser. The debate’s value would lie within, not so much the debate itself, but instead, the conversations that followed. Sure. But even so, I think we’re missing something. Tuesday’s event was intended, not to house all campus discussion, but to showcase both sides and spark even more thought. That’s just sort of the function debates have. I think the team wanted to get us talking. And as I am writing to you now, I think we can all agree that in this, they succeeded. Given that Siedman wrote and published his piece before actually seeing what the debate would say or do, I hope he is a bit more convinced of its merits now.
So, the debate got us talking. Let’s keep it up. I’m writing because I’m worried about where our conversations are going. Specifically, I’m worried about where our conversations aren’t going. As I mentioned above, for Siedman to miss so many big points and dance around such big subjects illustrates something vital to understand. When we talk about Greek life, we have to unpack the system it’s a part of.
Earlier this semester, as you may remember, the Reporter published an editorial alleging racism, implicit or otherwise, within Greek organizations and those who oversee them. And that really got people talking. As our Sports Editor Joe Yamulla wrote in defense of fraternities, what struck him as “even more unfortunate and dangerous [than that the Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life would not adequately support students of color] is that certain students think that racism is an inevitable component of the Greek character.”
To stereotype a large group of people would be a bad thing, as I am sure any member of any remote minority group (and dare I say, those who often feel hurt by Greek life for maybe doing the same thing?) would be the first to tell us. Yes, it would be unfortunate and dangerous to wrap all of Greek life, and especially all fraternities, into one big, bigoted package. But here’s my fear: we cannot rush to personally defend ourselves, and our own slice of Greek life, at the expense of understanding what has, for a long time, gone into Greek life. You and your brothers may not, say, actively be racist. But the system you align yourself with, the system you benefit from, has some really ugly roots.
We need to understand that though racism and its ugly cousins—sexism, homophobia, all general toxic, patriarchal vibes—may not be inevitable components of the Greek character, they are, as Doug Benton wrote, historic ones. These are components that are built into your foundation. When you join a fraternity, you have a responsibility to remember them and address them. Siedman writes of the burden to bear as a member of Greek life: the added scrutiny, the pressure to be “unimpeachable” lest it reflect poorly upon your brothers and sisters. It’s unfortunate that he and others should feel such a scrutinous pinch. Yet when you join any organization, especially one that would go as far as to call itself a brotherhood or sisterhood, you do so knowing what mantle you have to bear. You do so understanding the things you’re going to answer for. No, people should not spew undue criticism at you, but remember: If you work for, say, BP, you’re going to spend a lot of time talking about the Gulf of Mexico. It’s just going to keep coming up.
Siedman writes that it would be ill-advised and inappropriate to try and push for discourse in such a stratified space as a debate. But I worry that in thinking structurally, he overlooks something crucial: Greek organizations are both product and perpetrators of stratification. As Benton told us in February, we can’t just focus on grandiose, clearly problematic moments of racism and violence when we talk about fraternities; anyone can tell you something’s off there. No, we need to examine the “implicit examples of structural discrimination,” too. Fraternities have their very roots in separation, in privilege, in well-off white men forming even more exclusive groups on campuses that, it bears mentioning, most of us wouldn’t have even been allowed to visit.
By their very DNA, then, fraternities support certain people. They support people like Siedman, and they don’t support people like me. They just don’t. I need us to understand that. I’m not saying every iteration of every fraternity is destined to be something toxic and vile, but I am trying to remind this campus of the systems at work here. As Benton wrote, your organizational history does affect your present organization. And how that current organization manifests itself—within the parties you throw, the groups you invite, the pledges who feel welcome joining your brotherhood—does send a powerful message to us all.
In spite of Siedman’s slightly ironic, feminine gendering of the institution as a “her,” Greek life is born of patriarchy. And in this respect, it is just like all other things. It’s in the air we breathe. It’s coded within the campus we walk. It worries me when we don’t remind ourselves of that. It worries me when we don’t take our interactions, take our institutions, with that added grain of salt.
So, what is my point here? That for as much as we are free-thinking individuals, we are all players in this system. That we need to understand Greek life, understand fraternities and sororities, for their own place as hegemonic structures and for their place within a larger one. That we all need to think critically about what’s in the air, what’s in the Natty Light, and keep talking about it. Because nothing—not our organizations, not our campus, not this great country of ours—will change until we do.
As Siedman puts it, yes, we all do need to understand one another. Yes, we should start these conversations. We should come together as a community. This is not me setting a trap. The subtext to all of our discussions can’t just boil down to “you are wrong because.” People are going to disagree with you in this life. And when they do, you have a responsibility to assume that everyone means well. You have a responsibility to try and understand where the other person is coming from and respond with nuance, respect, and care. Just as a fraternity brother isn’t some villainous human because he’s in a fraternity and wrote an op-ed about it, neither is some GDI crazy for chiming in, too. Remember, you’re talking to and about other people. And as Yamulla further wrote in his January piece, “it is not okay to use this anger and frustration as a way to label and categorize all people as one in the same.” So, let’s all be cool, F&M. Let’s debate, let’s dialogue, let’s write, let’s engage. And above all else, let’s try to listen.
Erin Moyer is the Senior Editor. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.