RE: Fernandez: The Crowning of Kings

In the February 19th edition of The Daily Dartmouth, Sarah Fernandez wrote an opinion piece on the flaws of Dartmouth’s fraternity culture. She describes an encounter with a fraternity brother who denied her access to the basement stairs in order to get bread for her seriously drunken friend. She asked again, and he said no until finally she, somehow, made it up anyway. This, Ms. Fernandez purports, is a microcosm of all of the College’s flaws. Affiliated males dominate social spaces and “sexual assault, racist, sexist, classist, homophobic and transphobic acts” occur in their wake.

Ms. Fernandez’s piece represents the most recent entry in The Daily Dartmouth contributions to the emerging dialogue regarding sexual assault and campus culture. This discourse was largely catalyzed by outcry over the recent Bored@Baker post in which a user described how to sexually assault a member of the class of 2017.  The incident has been met with overwhelming support for the victim from students and disciplinary action from the administration. The aftermath has brought some good from what can only be described as unacceptable circumstances, however. Attention is being paid to an issue that deserves it.

This topic’s treatment in the Dartmouth has been less than varied, though. The past week has seen extremely similar opinion pieces that conclude with the same general point that current problems of sexual assault are untenable and ask that something, though no plan in particular, be done. Ms. Fernandez sets her self apart in taking a strong position. It’s too bad that it’s such a problematic one.

Wasting no time, Ms. Fernandez starts off by making the comparison of Dartmouth’s fraternity system to the 1971 Stanford prison experiment. In the experiment, 24 male undergraduates were randomly selected to play the role of prisoners and guards in a mock prison. The subjects internalized their roles as the line between reality and experiment blurred to the point where the “guards” actually began to abuse the prisoners psychologically and physically. Prisoners were denied clothes, mattresses, and means of relieving themselves. Psychological torture was employed and a makeshift solitary confinement was set up.

Fraternity brothers, Ms. Fernandez claims, are the same as the prison guards and act to, “prevent the ‘lesser masses’ from breaking the rules — to keep [their] prisoners in check.”

At best this is absurd hyperbole. Just at face value, the actions of brothers hosting a party for campus seems a far cry away from an experiment that has been compared to Abu Ghraib, the US prison in Iraq that was revealed to be a home of rampant torture, rape, and murder by the US army and CIA in 2003. Ms. Fernandez does not shy away from this characterization, however. She takes this immense and horrific abuse of power and equates it to Dartmouth in one weak slogan: “His house, his rules.”

This impression of affiliated men existing in a world totally white-washed with the eerie combination of obliviousness and good-old-boy contentment of a 50s sitcom, while committing sexual abuse at the slightest inclination, is a decidedly poor way to frame the issue. By demonizing the majority of men on campus, Ms. Fernandez detracts from discourse on sexual assault. Lines are drawn, opposing positions established, and an issue that everyone should be able to support fighting gets thrown to the side of the discussion.

This effect occurs throughout Ms. Fernandez’s piece. The initial impression of this author and so many others was totally colored by the inflammatory comparison of brothers to abusive prison guards and ended up obscuring the commentary she actually has to offer on the distribution of power on campus. The fraternity system, she argues, crowns “kings” on campus. It creates a class of privileged elites, with disproportionate power in our social spaces in basements across campus.

It would be dishonest to deny that there are exclusive aspects to the Greek system. Plenty of brotherhoods and sisterhoods on campus shape their memberships on the basis of social capital, sports affiliation, and various other arbitrary and, one could argue, unfair intangibles. Once they become members, brothers and sisters have new privileges. They have basements and houses to call home and they can exert power within those spaces more than an outsider can.

Yet settling with that image as the entire picture of Greek life at Dartmouth would be equally dishonest. It would neglect the unrivaled inclusivity of Dartmouth’s Greek system; that every student is correct in the assumption that gaining entry to a party or social scene is a door knock away. It would neglect the ever-increasing academic, ethnic, and sexual diversity of Dartmouth’s Greek population and the central role that fraternities and sororities play in shaping Dartmouth students’ experiences for the better.

On the note of power though, which Ms. Fernandez takes particular issue with in her article, her own analogy has some useful application to bear. It’s true that in the vacuum provided by the Stanford prison experiment the prison guards were unchecked in their abuse. That’s not the same as saying they have the kind of real and terrible power Ms. Fernandez describes. In fact, one of the most shocking conclusions drawn from the experiment was that the “prisoners,” under no compulsion to stay, remained in spite of the abuse. The guards didn’t actually have any meaningful authority, just as the brother in Ms. Fernandez’s piece couldn’t actually keep her from going up the stairs.

In the end, Ms. Fernandez’s article and the Dimensions protest this past year suffer from much the same problem. In the former’s comparing of the Dartmouth social culture to an infamous torture center where “women are raped in droves” and the latter’s exceedingly poor choice of crashing one of the most prized events on campus, some of the legitimate concerns both had to offer on the problem of sexual assault on campus are lost in the noise. It is imperative that dialogue continues on this issue. It is even more important, however, to start working towards solutions.  

— Alexander Kane

  • ’14

    thank you for this. that op-ed was more ridiculous than usual