February 20, 2020

WILK | The Deadly Flaws of Cornell’s Oldest Experiment

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America has a serial killer. Most recently, it has claimed the life of one of our own students at Cornell.

1994. A young man was brutally beaten with a paddle, body-slammed and kicked in the chest repeatedly over the duration of a week. The resulting injuries were broken ribs, a lacerated kidney, a lacerated liver, his chest, neck, back, and arms so badly bruised that the counter coroner advised the family not to look at the body and brain bleeding, from which he ultimately died.

2011. A young man was kidnapped, blindfolded and kept restrained at the wrists and ankles with zip ties and duct tape. He was then brought to a location where he was intoxicated to the point of unconsciousness. He was found dead, still tied up on a couch, covered in his own vomit.

2019. The most recent offense is painfully detailed in the lawsuit on behalf of Antonio Tsialas and his family: A slow, winding, perilous walk with other pledge candidates through seven rooms of the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house. Each freshman was accompanied by brothers and their encouragements to drink copious amounts of that room’s respective alcoholic conquest. And somehow, Antonio was found in a gorge, a mile away, alone.

Contrary to an extensive history, the killer remains elusive. An accumulating mountain of evidence sits against the perpetrator, but still the jury can never seem to come to the consensus of “guilty.” Instead, they squint and point to phantoms such as “structural issues,” “juvenile binge drinking,” “irresponsibility” and “excessive partying.” They dish out community service, warnings and lofty reforms which have a habit of reverting back to pointlessness after a couple of years.

And I get it; to some extent, the problems with fraternities are structural. The very architecture of these organizations is dangerous, as those who built them did so with problematic intentions and with rotten wood that was caving from the start. This history is hardly a viable excuse for the toll it continues to take on so many universities, so many families, so many friends and classmates. Remodeling is always in order, but also, and perhaps more importantly, structures alone don’t have the capacity to kill. We do. At some point we must force ourselves to acknowledge this  — that there is a very tangible, very human force at the base of so much disaster.

I think what’s so difficult to accept about the violence of hazing, or of fraternities in general, is the fact that we know the people within the Greek system, more often than not, don’t have intentions of inflicting harm. They’re our classmates. Our friends. They helped you study for orgo. They buy jackets for the homeless during Christmas time. They’re not bad guys, and definitely not murderers.

And yet, a student’s body was found in the gorge. Even those who were fortunate enough to trade his position for a particularly nasty hangover spent the night hunched, hurting and half-awake over a dormitory toilet instead.

Hazing

Andrew Moisey

Courtesy of Andrew Moisey

The missing puzzle piece seems to lie within the fact that no one involved in hazing is acting as they normally would, much less as they should. They are emboldened, enraged, subjugated, wrongfully humiliated, coerced, and elevated through the lawless, morally warped group psychology that haunts the very concept of fraternities. There is a banality to their evil. That this can all take place without some targeted, malicious intent exposes the dark and perplexing truth that fraternities have their entirely ‘own mentality,’ one that seems eerily parallel to discussions of the Stanford Prison and Milgram experiments and reveals “the ease with which regular people, if given too much power, could transform into ruthless oppressors.”

And so there are no rules in frat houses. There are no morals or lack thereof. There’s only the machine of ‘brotherhood’ and all the practices that are justified as a requirement for that machine to operate. It’s a  machine that lures willing, enthusiastic underclassmen in masses to big houses with a trail of promises, the conditions of which remain veiled until you find yourself immersed in them in some basement without your phone, surrounded by other kids who were also instructed to lie about their whereabouts to friends who might ask. They guarantee brotherhood, vow their loyalty, assure social success, happiness, clout, networking and everything else you could hope for. Over and over they remind you how good everything will be if you just do as you’re told, if you prove to them that you can take it, that you’re willing to give up your dignity and sanity for a couple weeks and not tell anyone because it’ll be so worth it, eventually. And when those weeks come to an end, you have the coming years together to tend to your wounds, as you all ascend the ranks and are bestowed with the power and responsibility of continuing the cycle of abuse, laughing as you watch your past selves drink themselves silly, following orders through their vomit and dips in and out of consciousness. Not out of malice, but out of tradition.

The first president of Cornell University, Andrew Dickson White, was a strong proponent of fraternities. He cited them as a wonderful opportunity to teach self-governance to young men. Within five years of the appearance of fraternities at the university, Cornell became home to the first fraternity-related death in American history. Since then, presidents have continued to condemn “careless and tragic errors” born out of “the dangers of undergraduate thoughtlessness.”

Mistakes, while deeply unfortunate, are unavoidable. Still, it’s troubling that as an institution praised for academic excellence, we refuse to learn from them.

Alecia Wilk is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at awilk@cornellsun.com. Girl, Uninterrupted runs every other Friday this semester.