September 6, 2011

Why President Skorton Is Right

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President David Skorton’s move to ban abusive pledging has evoked strong reactions from all sides. Those already offered in The Sun and elsewhere, however, do not do it sufficient justice. For the most part, there has been concerted neglect of his moral leadership on this issue.

Skorton’s argument is simple. Though fraternities play an important role at Cornell, we cannot excuse their dehumanizing practices. This reflects a strong moral position: Brotherhood founded on degradation is not true brotherhood. We cannot accept any community just because we value the concept of community. We must care about its moral content, and there is a basic standard to which any community on our campus must adhere.

This standard, it seems, is the maintenance of human dignity in all activities. Given the worst excesses of the Greek system — some of which have been documented online — President Skorton is right to emphasize this.

He is also right to stress that the positive aspects of the Greek system cannot justify its barbaric ones. This position calls attention to the irony at the heart of this system. Fraternities are at the forefront of uplifting human dignity through community service programs and fund-raising; however, these very same activities are used by fraternity leaders to excuse the abject debasement of their fellow human beings. In fact, those who passionately engage in the former often demonstrate the same, if not greater, enthusiasm for the latter. President Skorton is right to reject the cynical misuse of philanthropy.

Many have neglected these moral concerns. Dean Kent Hubbell ’69 explicitly stated that we face a “safety issue, not a moral issue;” similarly, Senior Lecturer Jan Katz suggested that the University must find cleverer ways to mitigate the foolish, risky behavior to which all teenagers are prone. Their exclusive concern is ensuring that no one dies.

Skorton admirably rejects Dean Hubbell’s false dichotomy, and recognizes that something greater is at stake than safety — though of course this is an essential goal. He sees a clear moral lesson: Death is obviously unacceptable, but so is the perception that true community can emerge from abuse.

This helps explain why he has not chosen to shut down the system entirely. Had he done so, he would have signaled that he cares only for our physical bodies. By articulating a vision of communities that take human dignity seriously, he has shown admirable concern for our character. Moreover, he has effectively demonstrated that ensuring both our safety and a moral environment are not separate tasks.

Unsurprisingly, those of the libertarian persuasion have rejected this position. They argue that the University cannot impose its will onto students, and that this direction represents a violation of  sacred individual rights — such as the right to consume copious amounts of dog food.

This position is baffling. The fraternity system only exists because the University says it does; therefore, it is subject to extensive University regulation.

But here’s the real conceit of the “hands-off” argument. Every fraternity must already disavow hazing, which is in fact a crime under New York State law. So why are some members concerned about this new directive, which only bans pledging activities that effectively take the form of hazing? If their pledging is indeed hazing-free, they should have no problem demonstrating this to the University and thereby maintain their old systems.

I think we know the answer to that one. What President Skorton has done — quite cleverly, in my opinion — is force everyone to acknowledge that in many cases, pledging involves a brutal hazing regime. Fraternities must now demonstrate that their practices reflect a clear distinction. If they can, they will keep their particular form of pledging. If they can’t, they’ll need to change — as they should.

No one is suggesting that this will end hazing. As many have mentioned before, the most hazardous  and demeaning activities occur after-hours, when the University has no reach. This directive does not effectively address this problem, nor can it. It is simply impossible to curb every dangerous activity.

But it gets one crucial thing right: the problem is cultural. The dangerous drinking and humiliating practices that killed George Desdunes ’13 are part and parcel of a defective culture, one that justifies truly disturbing abuse in the name of “community,” “brotherhood” and “leadership.” President Skorton has asserted that these concepts are meaningless if they lack any ethical content. We ought to agree.

Judah Bellin is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at jbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls usually appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin