I thought my legacy as a Sun columnist would be about something big. I thought it would be about God.
In October, I wrote a column called “A is for Atheist” in which I took a giant step out of the religious closet, professing aloud my rejection of theism and distinguishing myself as a capital-A Atheist.
I lay awake, eyes bloodshot, the night before publication. How would the campus react to my contention, phrased so starkly, that I do not believe in God? I played out scenes of apocalyptic fallout in my mind.
Dawn broke. And emails started to float into my mailbox.
But instead of damning me to hell, these letters largely offered support. Many sent words of encouragement. Others just wanted to let me know, as someone who seemed to understand, that they too were Atheists — though they couldn’t admit it to family and friends. And throughout the day, a number of classmates joked that they shared my beliefs — even if they classified themselves as “secular Jewish” or “kind of Muslim” or “my parents are Christians so I guess I am too,” rather than Atheist.
I eschewed the notion that there is order in the universe. I dismissed the idea that we have a larger purpose on this earth. I said I didn’t believe in God. And people were OK with it.
Two weeks later, I said I didn’t “believe” in sororities. Shit hit the fan.
In “Hey There, Sister,” I wrote a joint letter addressed to Cornell’s Panhellenic Council and to my own little sister, a freshman at another school. In it, I discussed my personal experience as a former sorority sister and explained my decision to eventually “deactivate.” I also pointed out a number of systemic problems that pervade Cornell’s Greek system: Namely, I stressed the way that the sororities, “archaic, paternalistic and patronizing,” work to demoralize and demean Cornell women.
But the crux of my column was a plea to “AMEND THE BYLAWS” — to enact tangible reforms that could, with very little effort, improve the quality of the sorority experience. Such proposed changes included: encouraging discussion about what constitutes discriminatory behavior; making rules and regulations more flexible; and coming up with the odd mixer theme that doesn’t include the words “Slut” or “Ho.”
If I was dreaming of apocalyptic fallout before, I found it here, in response to a column that, if anything, I feared was too trite and too insignificant to publish.
The very next day, a guest columnist wrote of my alleged “implication that sorority women sit around like perfect China dolls waiting for a potential husband to smack [them] around.”
Another columnist commended me, but misinterpreted my article to be an attack on sorority girls — on their supposed “dress-code” and penchant for “Ugg boots” — on their behavior as “a bunch of rich, catty girls counting calories and competing for husbands.”
A male columnist wrote in too, this time in defense of the archetypal sorority gal! But his observations about how “pretty” and “fun” and “charming” sorority girls are — how much “grace” they display, even if they are guilty of the occasional “opportunistic cuddle” — showed just how much he missed my point …
Friends asked if these responses upset me. Not their presence in the paper, certainly. But what I found troubling was the absence of fruitful discussion.
Aha, I thought, when I heard that the Interfraternity and Panhellenic Councils were preparing responses. Here was where the real debate would happen. Here — on center stage, in front of the Cornell community — our Greek leaders would step out and take charge.
In the place of concrete plans for reform, the IFC President left us with lofty assurances that “a new breeze is blowing through this campus and better things are yet to come.”
And while I appreciated the sentiment behind Panhell’s response, I similarly found only vague promises “to correct our shortcomings.”
A hell of a hullabaloo. And not much was gained.
This, I think, is a symptom of a much larger, crippling disease: the difficulty we have on this campus with open, productive debate — a difficulty that, in my mind, this past year’s events have shed light on time and time again.
Sometimes, we try to talk, but our talk degenerates into something destructive.
This year, discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on campus demonstrated just that. One striking image that I will carry away with me is of a flag display, set up to honor lives lost in the conflict, being mutilated — rearranged in the dead of night into a Star of David.
Sometimes, we start a conversation, but we don’t push it far enough.
We’re at risk of doing that right now, as debate over the discriminatory practices of the Chi Alpha Christian Fellowship continues. We’re at risk of allowing this single event to stand alone — to be treated as an anomalous and uncharacteristic example of intolerance. What we should be doing is treating it as a systemic issue. And we should be asking big questions, like, does any religious organization deserve funding from our Student Activity fees?
Other times, our attempt at discussion is ignored.
Last year, Columbia University hosted a three-day symposium to honor 1968 — a year in which Columbia students and residents took over campus buildings for six days to protest the construction of a racially-segregated facility. This year, Cornell University commemorated the 40 year anniversary of the Willard Straight Hall takeover with … silence on campus. Events did take place, but these were organized by student groups and not the administration at large, which remained absent.
I was at The Sun’s panel discussion of the Straight takeover last week. I didn’t see President Skorton there. (My sincere apologies if he was sitting quietly in the back.)
In the minute and pedestrian case of “Sororitygate,” debate was purposefully silenced.
At chapter meetings across campus, sorority presidents encouraged their members not to join in on the public discussion — something which would, in their estimation, only add fuel to the fire.
If “Don’t Kill the Messenger” has done anything, I hope it has encouraged you to be a confident and unapologetic loud mouth on campus. My advice is to talk. Talk! Talk and you’ll find others who will talk back.
I have some other advice, too. Like: Wash your wine glasses out between classes; buy CTB coffee instead of Starbucks; waterproof your shoes; write a thesis (but don’t make spring break plans); calm down, you will find an apartment; Gannet is wonderful, despite what you’ve heard; you will regret that Ivy Room burrito; resist law school; take creative writing; make friends with a Canadian; chat with your faculty advisor; and remember always that bylaws were made to be amended.
In closing, I would like to mind my manners and thank a few people. First I thank my wonderful and exceedingly talented editors Dave Wittenberg ’09 and Sammy Perlmutter ’10 for saving me so many times from extreme embarrassment … or worse. I also thank all the friends who have been my audience over the years; in particular, my lovely fellow columnist, Laura Temel ’09. And, of course, I thank my parents who, despite everything, manage to have faith in me.
Lastly, I thank you, my reader, for allowing me the tremendous honor of distracting you from your crossword puzzle on alternate Thursdays.