Frat Culture On Trial

Last week, an article on AC Voice exposed a shockingly misogynistic shirt printed by members of an off-campus fraternity, Theta Delta Chi (TD), that was greeted with minimal punitive action by the administration, much to the author and students’ chagrin. However, it was not greeted with surprise. In a public meeting organized in response by President Martin, several women spoke out about experiencing sexual disrespect or sexism at the College. Sexism, and the less-than-pleasant experiences of survivors or women in general at the College, is an acknowledged norm. However, the focus of the conversation turned largely instead toward frats, fraternity culture and TD in particular. While the actions of TD are reprehensible, any administrative action that focuses solely on punishing TD, or examining fraternity culture at Amherst, will be a shallow, symbolic move that seeks to bury a symptom of the problem while ignoring the problem’s larger cause and the nature of student associations.

This is not an endorsement for or against banning the fraternity, for we must understand that a ban on the fraternity will not stop students from freely socializing and associating as always, and they will still live off campus as they always have. This is a call to the administration and the student community to look at the larger problems with social culture at Amherst and work toward solving them rather than being satisfied with surface-level punitive measures.

There are problems at Amherst that are reflective of the larger culture we students live in. The College is not a bubble with students devoid of sentiments of racism, misogyny, classism, homophobia or any other prejudiced mindset. We cannot expect the College, the administration or the student community to change the biases and sentiments of these students. We can, however, expect a more robust and communicative community that attempts to recognize these sentiments and work toward handling them in a respectful manner.

We must attempt to influence minds, rather than merely make associations unofficial. When any group of students with commonalities choose to associate, the group culture accentuates features that the members have in common. Thus, it is possible that in any group of male students — sports teams, fraternities or even all-male suites — we will find exaggerated enactments of ‘masculinity.’ Unless every student recognizes and understands their own behavior, this phenomenon will perpetuate itself until a ‘herd mentality’ leads to offensive acts by the members of the association. Banning one association will not prevent the offensive actions of any other group of students.

There are several ways in which this can happen. One way would be to encourage more all-campus dialogues and activities that focus on breaking the homogenous culture of Amherst’s social cliques. For a start, first-year orientations and seminars can be reoriented around discussing these hard biases. In fact, the entire culture of Amherst itself can and should be called into question — the emphasis on academic busywork and resume building over self-development and introspection further entrenches the very problems that have culminated in this T-shirt in the first place.

An additional step in the campaign against disrespect would be to tackle the social vacuum on campus that allows such pacified student associations to lurk in the shadows beyond the social framework of campus life. In our awkwardly forced-together yet fragmented social culture at Amherst, building deeper associations of students may in fact pave the way for a stronger bond and greater understanding at Amherst can be looped together and co-opted into building more active sense of school spirit — school spirit enabling us to celebrate difference.

There are pros and cons to punitive action, and there are different forms the action can take. Ultimately, however, we cannot expect serious change until we start asking — and answering — the harder questions.