Rothfeld: Divisive Pledge Gear
By Becca Rothfeld, Contributing Columnist
Published on Tuesday, October 30, 2012
Responses to the College’s inept attempts at cracking down on hazing have been manifold, but few have been as well-reasoned and articulate as that of columnist David Brooks. In a recent article, Brooks argued that harsher brands of hazing serve no greater purpose, reminding us that we are not the subordinates of our fellow students and that such hierarchical ideology has no place in a social and civilian context (“Use and Abuse of Hazing Practices,” Oct. 24).
Yet when Brooks defends sirens, blue ribbons and jorts as “harmless acts” of hazing, I find myself wondering: harmless to whom? I don’t deny that donning a pair of stylish jean cut-offs is probably a less unpleasant affair than bathing in a kiddie pool filled with rotten food and semen — at least, for the initiates who have to do it. But tackies, blue bows and sirens may represent more than harmless fun for those of us who have to witness them.
Brook’s column is written from the perspective of a pledge, a member of a specific organization — not from the perspective of a member of the greater Dartmouth community. And for those of us who aren’t currently undergoing the ordeal of pledge term, visible marks of affiliation are perhaps the most injurious.
We live on a campus that is already incredibly fragmented — a campus where we are quick to segregate ourselves into rigidly established social spheres and are equally quick to categorize others. Why should we exacerbate the problem of social typecasting by rendering ourselves immediately identifiable as belonging to a particular group, associating ourselves with a whole host of stereotypes before we’ve even given others a chance to know us? Some measure of bias is doubtless inevitable, but there’s no reason to willfully perpetuate the problem.
Upon hearing an unfamiliar name, Dartmouth students have the unfortunate tendency of reflexively asking, “Is he or she affiliated?” Often, we are satisfied once we know someone’s house, as if this were the most telling or relevant information we could learn about a peer. Analogously, once we see someone carrying a siren or wearing jorts, we cannot help but pigeonhole him as an Alpha Chi or a Theta Delt.
It’s obvious to anyone that such classifications are massive simplifications of complex identities. But the temptation to simplify our peers remains. Whether or not we admit it, we all have preferences, opinions and prejudices when it comes to the Greek system. No matter how hard we try to disregard our preconceived notions, we can’t truly cast all of our biases aside when it is time to assess any particular person.
I don’t deny that it seems silly for the administration to forbid something as innocuous as a blue bow or a pair of shorts, but these objects occur within a certain cultural context and serve as social signifiers, inextricably bound up with a specific social meaning. What the administration has tried so inefficaciously to ban is not a piece of ribbon or a certain sort of hat but rather a cult of categorization that is harmful to us all.
The divisive nature of the Greek system may not be obviously apparent or immediately unpleasant to members of Greek houses, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t a regrettable social reality. And it is a social reality that is detrimental to all of us — even those who have no problem sporting some trendy jorts and a set of archetypes along with them.
While these concerns somewhat apply to Greek apparel in general, pledge term regalia is uniquely harmful. First, it’s flashier. Most of us have learned to ignore T-shirts and tote bags, but it’s difficult to look past Daisy Dukes in November or flair in the library.
Moreover, pledges are encouraged to strongly identify themselves with an organization to which they do not yet fully belong. It’s one thing for a full-fledged member of a Greek organization to make the informed decision that proudly representing his or her house outweighs the disadvantages of inadvertently stereotyping him or herself. It’s quite another to ask someone who knows next to nothing about the community into which he or she has been newly initiated to make his or her house the most visible and accessible part of his or her identity.
It’s easy to regard a group of individuals as no more than their superficial membership in a particular organization, but it’s also reductionist, and it’s a tendency that we all should resist. Tackies, blue bows and Brooks’ beloved jorts aren’t making it any easier.