September 10, 2018

JEONG | The Limits of Loyalty

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A few weeks ago, it was reported in the San Jose Mercury News that my high school music director was arrested for soliciting sexually explicit pictures from a student. This teacher meant the world to me in high school. Just as accomplished athletes celebrate their early coaches as formative mentors, I looked up to him as father figure of sorts, as did dozens of other students throughout his 14 years as an educator. As one friend put it, his classes were “some real ‘Dead Poets Society’ shit.” And as trite as it is to attach that reference to high school teachers that cared about their students, he was the type of teacher that made the laborious high school visit over winter break worth it because that kind of debt lasts a lifetime.

Initial reactions ranged from disbelief to denial, but after scouring through every Bay Area publication and Twitter post online, it was pretty hard to doubt or defend against any accusation. It questioned a relationship that spanned a decade and a gratitude that I thought would continue for the rest of my life. His influence on my life can’t be measured in years, and the countless hours he spent after school helping me with college audition tapes will never be forgotten. But it’s hard to reconcile my personal gratitude with the fact that this father of two sons — sons that I watched grow up — spent the five minute gap between third and fourth period sexting a 16 year old girl who probably trusted and revered him like I did at her age. It begs the question: at what point should we question the loyalty that we place on the people and institutions we hold dear to our lives?

This question isn’t reserved to personal anecdotes or PTA gossip — we see very real and relevant examples in the news today. Michael Cohen, Trump’s former attorney, adviser and personal misplacer of evidence, recently testified against his client, after decades of secretly paying off porn stars and shredding compromising documents. This was the same man that boasted that “there’s no money in the world that could get me to disclose anything about [The Trumps].” Although a reported $10 million book deal wasn’t enough to get Cohen to spill the beans, it turns out that 30 years in prison was what it took to sway even the self-proclaimed “guy who would take a bullet for the President.” And it’s hard to blame Cohen for his economically rational decision, especially when, from the look of Bob Woodward’s new book, many current staffers feel the same way.

It was also reported in August that more than 300 Catholic priests in Pennsylvania were identified for molesting over 1,000 children in the span of seven decades. The grand jury report documenting the decades of sexual abuse contains the haunting line: “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades.” Yet, for many families, this news will do little to diminish fervor for the church. Parishioners will continue to line their usual pews every Sunday, acutely aware of the unforgivable crimes that occured in the same holy building they were baptized 40 years ago. Because to them, their faith to and in the Church transcends any earthly transgression.

But outside the political and spiritual realm, every student at Cornell is exposed to a very tangible example of the fallibility of loyalty that has material consequence to our daily lives: Greek life.

The criticisms of Greek life have been thoroughly discussed and documented, and by this point, it is indisputable that Greek life is a broken, antiquated system. It was a structure designed by wealthy, old white men to perpetuate wealth and whiteness, and its current form also continues to promote a hierarchy in which the white, male and wealthy derive the most value. Every semester, there is more than one high profile incident of an initiation ritual gone wrong, inappropriate sexual behavior or racially charged violence. But the most pernicious and threatening incidents are the regular and ignored transgressions that we never hear about because they are settled within the confines of the house.

However, I find it personally difficult to completely denounce fraternities as a whole. In my years as a brother of an IFC fraternity, I have met my lab partners, my gym buddies, my future groomsmen and the best friends any guy can ask for. Although “brotherhood for life” is an inane platitude, it has offered me some of my most human and poignant moments at Cornell. In the media, we don’t hear about the times when your friends rushed you over to Cayuga Medical Center after you tore your ACL from taking intramural basketball a little too seriously. Or about the first time you opened up about mental health to your pledge class, because until then, it was a “you problem” that wasn’t worth bringing up even to your parents. Or the steadfastness of brotherhood when you experienced true loss for the first time at the age of 20.

It is because of these moments that it becomes so difficult to speak out against the questionable and the outright unforgivable. It nurtures a culture of silence, in which sexual misbehavior, racial violence and blatant xenophobia is swept under the beer-stained rugs of the 100-year-old playhouse that fraternities call home. To say that Greek life is altogether evil is an oversimplification, but every — I repeat, every — fraternity on this campus stores its share of secrets that would make most outsiders raise an eyebrow. The legacy of fraternities will not be one of brotherhood and service, but of outdated values and morally dubious behavior. When you scan the hundreds of composite pictures that line the walls of any fraternity, chances are you are probably framing more than a few faces of sexual predators, perpetrators of homophobia and transphobia, and habitual users of racial slurs. The fraternity house is a century-old symbol and omnipresent reminder of core values that we were taught to shun in elementary school. Our allegiance to the house is what unites us, but its secrecy is what compels us stay quiet in the face of evil. This silence is then responsible for the normalization of a myriad of bad behaviors, pain and trauma.

The institutionalization of secrecy and the expectation of indiscriminate loyalty are why fraternities will never fully evolve from the racist, classist and sexist institutions they were established to be. In a utilitarian sense, to expect fraternities to self-report any malfeasance is unreasonable and unrealistic. Because to report the house is to report not only your friends, but also yourself as a complicit member. The limits of loyalty will always be contextual, the context being the relationship itself. But we have to constantly ask whether the utility we derive from these relationships outweigh the dangerous realities and larger implications of our allegiances. Loyalty, like all values, is inextricably tied to sentiment. Unlike many values, the sentiment behind loyalty requires some articulation. Speaking out against the forces that pressure us to stay silent is difficult, messy and morally complex. But it is something we just might have to do for the sake of a greater good.

So this is why I feel comfortable with my decision to leave my fraternity. This and the fact that $2,300 a semester seems like an awfully steep price to pay for other kids’ liabilities. My loyalty lies not in the fraternity as an institution, but rather the wonderful individuals that comprise it. And nothing will ever change that.

Jason Jeong is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Jeongism runs every other Tuesday this semester. He can be reached at jjeong@cornellsun.com.