There’s been a running discussion at Swarthmore for a year now, mostly among the students and some between the students and the administration, about the effort to get a sorority established at the college. National media recently reported on the decision to allow the group to proceed and thereby overturn a ban on sororities that was enacted in response to a student-led campaign in 1933. (The campaign was substantially a response to the anti-Semitism of the sororities of that time.) One of the things that some outsiders haven’t picked up on is that fraternities were not banned in this decision, and that we have them today at the college, which often surprises visitors. Our fraternities are non-residential and their membership is a relatively small proportion of the male students, though they do host a lot of the weekend parties. That’s the backdrop of the administration’s decision to allow the sorority to go forward: if nothing else, there’s a Title IX issue that can’t be finessed–if there are fraternities and some women want a sorority, that’s pretty much the end of the matter.
In the world of higher education as a whole, I think it’s pretty clear that Greek life is a significant source at best of some dumb, destructive behavior and at worst an incubator of sexual violence and thuggery. “Community service” for some fraternities and sororities at large universities is a cynical fig leaf covering butt-chugging, hazing and bullying. But I’ve certainly seen the other side of Greek life at times–not so much the alleged community service, but more the way the organizations can build strong social ties, mutual support, sustained attention to life-long friendship. Some of them have very powerful approaches to making and modeling community and intimacy. Plus the bad side of Greek life is hard to wrestle to the ground without coming off like a 21st Century Dean Vernon Wormer: it feeds off of transgression, seeks out outrage and disdain.
At Swarthmore, I’ve known and taught many of the men who belong to the fraternities and they’ve largely seemed good folks to me. I’ve never been anywhere near their parties or events and it would neither be my job nor my preference to know anything about what goes on there or in almost any other similar aspect of weekend student recreation. (I did come down to watch and photograph a part of the famous Pterodactyl Hunt this year, which has nothing to do with fraternities and is in any event mind-blowingly awesome, but also because my 11-year old was dying to see what it looked like.) I suppose if I had my druthers we might not have fraternities or a sorority but mostly I don’t think it’s my business whether we have them or not, nor is it an issue I want to worry much about as a faculty member.
I am a bit worried by some of the opposition among students to the sorority. Not so much because of what it means for the prospects of the actual sorority but because of what it suggests about how we continue to fall short of some of our general institutional aspirations for achieving a community, some of which live inside the curriculum and weigh on our teaching.
The first thing I’d suggest to the opponents with strong feelings is that I’d put even money on the sorority not surviving past the graduation of the students who want to start it. Most of the groups and projects that Swarthmore students start are driven by the energy and commitment of their founders, and very few of those projects are built in a way that this energy is sustainable and transferable to the next group of students to enroll.
Behind that point is lurking a more important principle. When a group or a project does survive, that means something. Either it suggests that out there in the wider world, there are influential sponsors or examples that continue to give the project some long-term legs, or that there is a recurrent desire over time within the student body for the project. In both cases, that’s a significant social fact that requires serious appraisal.
I’ve been a bit dismayed that some of the student opponents of the sorority invoke distant objects and generalizations as sufficient reason for their opposition. Those are ok as impressionistic sketches of your intuitions or feelings (as mine are above) or snark but if offered as a justification for action, for decision-making, you have to up your game a bit. Specifically, you have to stop looking to the generalized horizon (say, the “mainstream”) and get real about the specific, tangible human beings who are right in front of you.
Anything that real people do in the world is by definition interesting. By ‘interesting’, I mean worthy of the kind of investigation that puts curiosity and honesty well before judgment. Judgment may come, but only after you’ve done some work. Anything that real people do in your own community, neighborhood, or other immediate social world is interesting in that sense twice over. It’s easier (at least in basic material terms) to ask, with unfeigned curiosity, “So what’s up with that?” when you see someone every day. If you’re going to use tropes of community, it’s morally important to be interested in its entirety. And the practical political dangers of keeping your distance and relying on haughty generalizations within a community are very real: that’s the quickest way to rouse an opposition that will then be right on your doorstep rather than at a safe distance.
So if you don’t like the idea of a sorority (or the idea of existing fraternities) at Swarthmore, I’d say the first thing to do is ask, with openness, curiosity, and generosity, with no pressing need to get to some predetermined end or conclusion, “So why do the people who want them want them?” And by that I mean, ask them. And listen.
This is the space where college communities like Swarthmore can fall pretty flat in their aspirations to diversity. We have students who will go all around the world to meet, live among and humbly try to understand a community of people whose history, culture and material conditions are very different from their own previous experience. Those same students can balk at understanding or negotiating the immediate presence of anyone whose unfamiliarity is not so customarily different, who is not an expected or presupposed sort of “diverse” person.
Getting over that hesitation is all the more important for people who hope to push for progressive or radical social transformation. If you don’t understand, in fact appreciate, a person or group that you believe should change (particularly if you think they should change to be more like you), you’ll never persuade them. Which leaves you only one option: to compel them. I think that is precisely why some of our students persistently look to the college administration (essentially the local version of the state) to accomplish their political or social goals: because they despair of, or never begin, the work of understanding and persuasion. At that point the cupboard of options is bare. Nothing is left but the imposition of rules, strictures, mandatory trainings, bannings, prohibitions.
This impulse is a potentially disastrous cul-de-sac for a genuinely progressive politics. If you have to make that move, wield that big stick, you better be sure that you have an actual big stick in hand and that the need for such a move is overwhelmingly urgent, gut-wrenchingly important, viscerally documented.
I was listening to an NPR story yesterday about the continuing problem of neo-Nazism in Germany, and a phrase in the story really hit me. The reporter said that political leaders were frustrated and surprised at the persistence of neo-Nazism “despite sixty years of educational effort”. What I thought was, just substitute the words because of and you’d be close to an explanation. The German state, any state, is going to create its own margins and exclusions. Whatever that state chooses to ban–or prescribe–will be an irresistable hermeneutical beacon to those margins. Post-1950 secular postcolonial states in the Islamic world virtually recommended Islamic fundamentalism as the privileged voice of opposition to the corruption and fecklessness of their rule precisely by stressing their secular character. Robert Darnton, in The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, argues that as the ancien regime of France responded to the spread of print culture with a more and more assertive regime of censorship, it effectively recommended the targets of its censorship to readers. The state’s attention was a sign that a work was interesting. Darnton also argues that the state helped to seal its own fate by showing itself to be both helpless to stop readers from reading and by revealing its prohibitions to be silly or self-interested.
Asking a college administration to maintain a ban on sororities through evading or finessing a statutory requirement that has been a powerful tool for enforcing gender equity might be a similarly corrosive or counterproductive move. Particularly if it’s largely to avoid a difficult conversation in your own immediate community about why people unlike yourself are unlike yourself and why they want what you do not want.