The following is a Letter to the Editor submitted to North by Northwestern and does not reflect the views of its editorial board.
“The bullshitter,” philosopher Harry Frankfurt once wrote, “may not deceive us, or even intend to do so, either about the facts or about what he takes the facts to be.” Rather, according to Frankfurt, what makes the bullshitter distinctive “is that in a certain way he misrepresents what he is up to.”
The IFC executive board’s recent open letter, apologizing for the remarkably gauche banners hanging from chapter houses the last few weeks in honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, is bullshit in this sense. Little, if anything, in it is false, but it misses the point by such a wide margin as to be guilty of deflecting the conversation away from the actual heart of the matter: the deep, systemic role the IFC fraternity system plays in entrenching toxic masculinity and sexual violence on Northwestern’s campus.
As the letter describes, three different slogans made their way onto banners: “XYZ Stands Against Sexual Violence,” “XYZ Supports Survivors,” and “This is Everyone’s Problem.” IFC exec correctly identifies the myriad problems with the first two. But I think it is the third slogan, which the IFC letter does not criticize, that is actually the most pernicious.
Everyone is affected, in one way or another, by sexual violence. And it is true that people of all genders can both inflict and experience sexual violence. But one way or another, the common denominator is a conception of masculinity that denigrates femininity, preaches male entitlement to sex, stigmatizes expressions of emotion and vulnerability, and valorizes power and control as attributes of the ideal man. Naming men and masculinity as uniquely to blame for sexual violence is thus a non-negotiable first step to stopping it. Implicating “everyone” sounds nice, but is ultimately a distraction.
The fraternity system is built on the binary opposition of masculinity and femininity that supplies this toxic paradigm with its logic, and so it’s unsurprising that fraternities so often inculcate these values in their members. If IFC wants to “develop an active ownership for the culture within” its chapters, its leadership needs to start by admitting that it’s no accident that fraternity men rape 300 percent more often than unaffiliated men and that so many people on campus have stories to tell about fraternity chapters continuing to tolerate the presence of sexually violent men in their organizations.
Real accountability means actively taking concrete steps to undermine the campus culture of male dominance in which Northwestern fraternities – every one of them – are currently complicit. It means coming to terms with the fact that social scenes where men control who is present and who gets what kind of alcohol are always ripe for abuse. It means setting a zero-tolerance policy for members who perpetrate assault, and prioritizing trust and real support for survivors over vacuous allegiance to “brotherhood.”
Above all, it means acknowledging that good intentions mean nothing whenever men – as they inevitably do, including IFC exec, including me – hurt others, especially women. It means cutting the bullshit.
Erik Baker, former ASG Senator for College Feminists, SHAPE, MARS, and Title IX at Northwestern