Anger is the easiest reaction: On changing fraternity culture

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Nikhar Arora/Staff

Anger is the easiest reaction. It is also often the first. It fills your lungs like a flash flood, washing all other emotions away. But anger does not have to be the last reaction. Anger does not have to be the only reaction we ultimately choose to act with.

In the wake of the sexual assault allegations against the UC Berkeley chapter of the Sigma Chi fraternity, I can’t help but think of Michael Ian Black’s piece published a few weeks ago in the New York Times. “The Boys Are Not All Right” is a stunning op-ed that delivers a message that can, and should, be taken beyond the territory of school shootings that it addresses:

America’s boys are broken. And it’s killing us.” To paraphrase the rest — but nonetheless fall far short of what it deserves — Black believes men have lost their place in a country that has spent the past decades focusing on women’s movements, while ignoring that the “model of masculinity” has not adapted at the same speed. Men have not been a part of conversations on what it means to be male in the same way that women have explored their multiplicity of identities.

Stuck with the traditional “model of masculinity” that is based in strength and power but is no longer appreciated while also living in a society that has preserved the notion that vulnerability is emasculating, the men who have not figured out how to navigate this dialogue have resorted to the easiest reaction: anger.

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As traditionally single-sex organizations exempted from Title IX, fraternities preserve this traditional “model of masculinity” like no other modern-day social stomping ground. Because sororities are nationally prohibited from hosting parties or keeping alcohol in their houses, fraternity men become responsible for hosting most co-ed social functions within the Greek system. Not only do they assume the expenses for the alcohol in a breadwinning fashion, they also get to decide which women are allowed to attend the gatherings.

Sororities are also traditionally single-sex organizations exempted from Title IX. Being in a sorority, I have often wondered why I subscribe to a system that doesn’t allow me the same social liberties as my male counterparts. However, we are afforded one key difference: Sorority membership, with the rise of women’s empowerment movements, has begun to reclaim its origin as a support system for women proving their academic worth. That is to say, we’re ushering in an era in which being a feminist and being a sorority woman need not be mutually exclusive terms.

Modern-day sororities encompass women who believe that change comes from within, because our membership hinges upon it.

Since the fall of my freshman year when I decided to go through sorority recruitment, I have participated in hours of workshops on sexual assault, mental health and professional growth. I have had endless conversations regarding and surrounding the flaws of the Greek system as well as how we can work to resolve them. I engage in these discussions because as cliche as it sounds, joining a sorority has provided me with a foundation of emotional support unparalleled by any organization of which I have ever been a part.

Every time another sexual assault allegation arises in the Greek community, I sit through yet another meeting on what we can do to change the culture. But as it turns out, I’ve had so many of them in the year and a half I’ve been at this school that I’ve lost count. Every single time, the cycle is the same: The fraternity is warned, put on probation and then, by the time their probation period ends, everyone has forgotten why they were put on probation in the first place.

 A slap on the wrist in the form of a canceled philanthropy event is no better than a timeout.”

UC Berkeley Panhellenic Council’s decision to not participate in the philanthropy events held by the Sigma Chi chapter is a small step beyond social probation. But in an attempt to send the message that “enough is enough,” we need to remember that anger shouldn’t be our only reaction; retaliation shouldn’t be the only message.

These allegations will become just another episode in a common series that plagues college campuses — if they are not met with more than anger. A slap on the wrist in the form of a canceled philanthropy event is no better than a timeout. The “timeouts” for boys need to be followed by a new kind of adult conversation, because this pattern of sexual assault allegations proves there are some men who “are not all right.”

Which means we need to be asking ourselves better questions.

How can we change the fact that fraternities are not providing their members the same level of self-exploration that women are receiving from their sororities? The model of identity in fraternities has clearly not evolved in tandem with that of sororities. Sororities, though not without an entire set of faults of their own, have provided a space for female expression that has the potential to be translated to male-dominated spaces.

How can we balance punishment and assistance? In Greek life, we’re forced to resort to punishment of the whole. Social probation is, thus, a weak punishment. These collectivized consequences (and with them, the perception of the collective), based on the actions of a few or even a single individual, make cooperation from the collective difficult.

We need to make change accessible to those within the organization who wish to assist, while still exacting appropriate punishment. While transparency surrounding issues of sexual assault is important, it doesn’t take a genius to predict that creating a sensationalized scandal out of a chapter will have antagonizing effects.

Nevertheless, it is high time fraternities understood the magnitude of their actions and experienced real consequences. It is also high time fraternities learned how to deal with consequences appropriately. Unfortunately, it is difficult to judge internal transparency from an outside perspective. Whether justified or not, a defensive attitude doesn’t allow for the vulnerability necessary in productive channels of communication.

“How would you acknowledge that your friend is a rapist?”

How can we address the fact that there are no guidelines on how to respond if a friend is accused of sexual misconduct? If one of my close friends or family members were accused, my first reaction would be to fiercely defend them. We hold certain beliefs about the world around us that alter the way we interpret events.

We like to think our friends are “good people.” We like to think that perpetrators of sexual assault are “bad people.” Those ideas are incompatible when applied to the same person, and when coupled with the fierce loyalty that Greek life inspires, they become irreconcilable. We need to address how to address these realities if we want the outcomes to be different.

How would you acknowledge that your friend is a rapist?

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I am not attempting to diagnose the causes of these chronic incidences that pervade fraternity culture, or suggest that this is the case for all instances of sexual assault. What’s important is that the most realistic approach to reform doesn’t end with retribution. It is time to look at these allegations in a multidimensional way, especially in this group setting that is particularly susceptible to a skewing of accountability.

Greek life has failed to provide some men with the same net of vulnerability it has given women. Beyond this failure, it suffers from an internalization of affairs that means that handling situations such as sexual assault has often fallen to the responsibility of Panhellenic women.

“Greek life has failed to provide some men with the same net of vulnerability it has given women.”

Despite the ways in which this can be an insufficient system, I can only hope that we might lead by example. We need to encourage our male counterparts to hold conversations that go beyond the principles of consent and begin to delve into modern-day masculinity, just as we have explored the many ways in which we can be women. Men need to be supported in finding the same level of engagement with their identities.

I would like to hang on to my belief that people and situations can change. Without it, I would lose any hope I have, not only for a Greek community free of sexual assault, but also for a world in which we don’t have to continuously sentence men who have done decades of wrong.

It is great that #MeToo has sparked a powerful movement that has brought concrete responses addressing a cultural epidemic, but we can’t forget the conversations that preceded the movement. Wrapped up in the reversal of power through retribution, we need a reminder of what we set out to do.

“Punishment can lend a show of support to survivors, but it is a temporary fix that operates on an individual’s desire to not get caught.”

How do we prevent these situations, not just learn how to handle them? Punishment can lend a show of support to survivors, but it is a temporary fix that operates on an individual’s desire to not get caught. We need a desire to not commit the actions in the first place.

I realize that the reason I have the capacity to say this, in the context of sexual assault, is because I have never been a survivor. Because honestly, if it were me, I would probably want the perpetrator dead. Survivors are under no obligation to rehabilitate their attackers.

But the rest of us? Engaging in systematic change centered around revenge is problematic. We can only produce lasting cultural shifts by approaching sexual assault from both sides. This is not in the sense of settling an argument, because I firmly believe that the survivor is always right. Instead, we can work with a new understanding of our anger.

We can all be angry while still acknowledging that anger, when only translated to retribution, has proven to be ineffective. Targeted anger doesn’t produce the intentional, productive conversations we need for an improved understanding.

In order to prevent and transform the damaging mentalities of perpetrators and the pervasiveness of rape culture that brings these individuals to twisted justifications of these acts, our conversation cannot begin with anger.

When anger begets anger, we all lose.

Contact Alejandra Dechet at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @aydecks.