Columns

Sweren ’15: Talking in turn

By
Opinions Editor
Wednesday, February 25, 2015

There have been a number of headlining slips of tongue in recent months, from Brian Williams’ mismemory turned into a flat-out lie to Justine Sacco’s AIDS joke morphed into a career-ending punch line. And then there have been more deliberate utterances made with the intent to remove the speech of others.

Fox News recently picked up an article by a Herald columnist and kept it on the front burner for 10 days straight. I watched as a friend and colleague entered the limelight, pushed by a fellow peer, with his words and screen glaring up at him, burning down on him pinpoint. News anchors referred to him as a “leftist activist wannabe” and as a “stupid jerk.”

And then there’s Phi Kappa Psi — a fraternity accused of and found responsible for “creating an environment that facilitated sexual misconduct,” according to University findings. Its public service announcement can be read in Tuesday’s Providence Journal. It’s an instance of airing dirty laundry, and in the machismo, jersey-waving, post-victory sort of way. 

Institutions with a certain degree of power and respectability — news organizations, fraternities — often act with force. But by targeting and drowning out the individual voice, these conglomerates are using strategic chastisement for the purpose of self-aggrandizement. And while the two aforementioned events are worlds apart, both Fox’s actions and Phi Psi’s address ultimately serve the same purpose: to scare and deter.

When national television anchors repeatedly insult and berate an undergraduate columnist, they first target an individual; they then target other voices. Fox failed to address particular arguments that the columnist made and, rather, attempted to shame those who support an ideology into submission and subservience. They attempted to deter their viewership from engaging with these thoughts, and they attempted to deter the author and society as a whole from voicing this opinion.

When a fraternity is penalized by a school for creating an unhealthy and unsafe environment, and when that fraternity then writes to the city paper and addresses “members of the Brown community” to clarify its situation, it causes unnecessary harm to itself, to discourse and to the actual victims of sexual assault. Phi Psi’s letter seems geared not toward the community but toward the University and those that accused the fraternity of wrongdoing. In this regard, the fraternity used its position of power and authority — male power and authority — to vocalize an “I told you so” on an inappropriate media platform and created an environment more hostile, more uncomfortable and more stifling for future victims to come forward and report instances of sexual misconduct. They used a city paper to target specific people and created an additional deterrent and more fear as a result of their “clarification.”

Free speech is important; our nation depends upon its protection. We watch with horror as cartoonists are slain. We cringe when liberty is siphoned and journalists are forced to testify by law. Speech is important. Freedom of speech is more important. And I, like others, am indebted to those alive and dead who forged and preserved the right to talk in turn. It’s the talking out of turn that begins to look frightening. It’s the abuse of a soapbox to silence the voices of those less powerful.

Many will cringe at this analysis, confuse it and bark mad. Some will deny that a news outlet can harass an individual or a society — “we just report the news” — and others will side with the fraternity, assert that the University’s proceedings were targeted and hail Phi Psi’s vindication.

But it’s concerning when a news organization begins to conflate its role in society and disregards the comfortable niche of satire. And it’s equally concerning when a fraternity that has a presence on many campuses across the country continues to shame those already experiencing pain, hurt and trauma instead of taking its vindication in stride. 

When Fox reached out to the columnist on multiple occasions, contacting him directly, contacting University administrators and contacting peers — all to no avail — perhaps it wanted to remind him that his freedom of speech wasn’t free or were looking to recruit more “wannabes” and “jerks” for one of its shows. When Phi Psi addressed the Providence community as a whole, perhaps it was genuinely looking to clear its name — redundant given the University’s email about the new findings a day prior — and let us know that it was the real victim in this kerfuffle. Or perhaps it was doing what we all know but don’t verbalize: sometimes we too can terrorize.

Evan Sweren ’15 is a Herald opinions editor.

  • Guest

    Sorry, but this article is laughably bad. And I’m trying really hard not to be mean, but I don’t understand how you could possibly arrive at the conclusion you do.

    I’m not affiliated with Phi Psi, and I also think it’s that reasonable to hold fraternities accountable for what happens as a consequence of their parties, even if they were not the direct assailants.

    That said, let’s run through some quick points:

    “In this regard, the fraternity used its position of power and authority — male power and authority — to vocalize an “I told you so” ….”

    Yes, fraternities are male; thanks for clarifying that. But where’s the “I told you so”? Are you referring to their airing that the GHB tests were inconclusive? Because Russell Carey said as much in his January 19th email, and then reiterated it recently with updated consequences — Phi Psi is just talking about already-public information.

    “…. on an inappropriate media platform and created an environment more hostile, more uncomfortable and more stifling for future victims to come forward and report instances of sexual misconduct.”

    Well, saying that it’s an “inappropriate media platform” sort of begs the question, no? I’m also not sure how any of this is hostile toward victims of sexual assault; Phi Psi is not blaming the victims for any of their allegations, nor are they denying anything about whether the assault took place.

    Phi Psi is merely arguing their own role in the incident and saying that Brown isn’t fulfilling either its obligation to a.) determining responsibility, or b.) clarifying the process by which it determines responsibility. Hence, why is the alleged assailant still on campus?

    “But it’s concerning when a news organization begins to conflate its role in society and disregards the comfortable niche of satire. And it’s equally concerning when a fraternity that has a presence on many campuses across the country continues to shame those already experiencing pain, hurt and trauma instead of taking its vindication in stride.”

    Huh? No idea what the first sentence means. And in the second, nobody in Phi Psi is shaming the victim; they are arguing that Brown’s process is a.) not getting appropriate justic for the victim, as the alleged assailant is still on-campus, and b.) targeting Phi Psi in a way that unfairly increases tension over these issues *and* arguing that they should remain silent about the proceedings for better treatment, which stifles any discussion.

  • sjadler

    Sorry, but this article is laughably bad. And I’m trying really hard not to be mean, but I don’t understand how you could possibly arrive at the conclusion you do.

    I’m not affiliated with Phi Psi, and I also think it’s that reasonable to hold fraternities accountable for what happens as a consequence of their parties, even if they were not the direct assailants.

    That said, let’s run through some quick points:

    “In this regard, the fraternity used its position of power and authority — male power and authority — to vocalize an “I told you so” ….”

    Yes, fraternities are male; thanks for clarifying that. But where’s the “I told you so”? Are you referring to their airing that the GHB tests were inconclusive? Because Russell Carey said as much in his January 19th email, and then reiterated it recently with updated consequences — Phi Psi is just talking about already-public information.

    “…. on an inappropriate media platform and created an environment more hostile, more uncomfortable and more stifling for future victims to come forward and report instances of sexual misconduct.”

    Well, saying that it’s an “inappropriate media platform” sort of begs the question, no? I’m also not sure how any of this is hostile toward victims of sexual assault; Phi Psi is not blaming the victims for any of their allegations, nor are they denying anything about whether the assault took place.

    Phi Psi is merely arguing their own role in the incident and saying that Brown isn’t fulfilling either its obligation to a.) determining responsibility, or b.) clarifying the process by which it determines responsibility. Hence, why is the alleged assailant still on campus?

    “But it’s concerning when a news organization begins to conflate its role in society and disregards the comfortable niche of satire. And it’s equally concerning when a fraternity that has a presence on many campuses across the country continues to shame those already experiencing pain, hurt and trauma instead of taking its vindication in stride.”

    Huh? No idea what the first sentence means. And in the second, nobody in Phi Psi is shaming the victim; they are arguing that Brown’s process is a.) not getting appropriate justic for the victim, as the alleged assailant is still on-campus, and b.) targeting Phi Psi in a way that unfairly increases tension over these issues *and* arguing that they should remain silent about the proceedings for better treatment, which stifles any discussion. I really doubt that Phi Psi feels vindicated.

    Finally, I’ll talk about your comparison to Fox News. I haven’t seen the Fox incident, but some immediately apparent differences: a.) FN is referring to someone by name in a way that follows them; Phi Psi refers to nobody by name; b.) FN isn’t particularly involved with the person they’re bullying; Phi Psi isn’t bullying anybody *and* they were directly implicated by third-parties (Brown) so they feel a need to defend themselves; c.) FN harrasssed a student directly and many of their friends; Phi Psi wrote a general letter to a general community and didn’t (as far as I know) repeatedly harrass people for comments or to participate.

    So, yeah. Not a fan of this article. Maybe I’m way misguided here, but honestly, as somebody who is generally okay with the ruling but wishes there had been more openness about the proceedings, I’m just not sure at all where you’re coming from.

  • Eugene

    Smart and challenging article. Every fraternity and sorority should consider the effects– both intended and not– of mob mentality.

    • Guest

      The only real “mob” was the broader community that aimed to publicly punish Phi Psi before any real facts of the case were heard. This includes the administration, who got the evidence wrong (inconclusive, not positive) on the first woman and then hid the evidence (the negative result) on the second one. With their house lost and the fraternity facing break up, it was natural for Phi Psi to begin to state the true facts of the case, and it did so (a) without divulging all it actually does know out of respect for others, and (b) without casting any negative tones on the same females who incorrectly accused them of drugging in the first case. If they could not get their points released in a community-wide email like the deans did, which was picked up by media across the country, then it is more than fair for them to do so via the local newspaper.

      “Smart” is not a way to describe a column (this is not an article) which assumes rather than knows Phi Psi’s reasons for publishing its letter via the ProJo. And it is insensitive to the members of the fraternity who have been unfairly punished without a fact base.

  • Mendoza

    Calls much due attention to the ways in which an individual’s voice can be quickly distorted or overpowered through association with a larger body or movement, be it a university and its policies, a fraternity, or a news outlet’s witch hunt.

  • ’17

    http://www.providencejournal.com/article/20150223/News/150229705

    I think Brown handled this situation poorly–the suspension of Phi Psi seemed to be a response to save face in the public image and did so little for the true victims of the sexual assault, as their rapist is still on campus. This date rape could have happened anywhere–it just so happened to be at Phi Psi, and it’s terrible that they are being so harshly punished for something that they were relatively uninvolved with.

    However, I think the columnist makes a good point after reading the letter (URL posted above). The fraternity is taking attention away from the true victims of the crime, the women who were assaulted, by calling attention to how the fraternity is victimized by the university. The paragraphs they included in their letter about the inconclusiveness of the GHB tests attacks the validity of the claims made by the sexual assault victims, which is absolutely inappropriate. Yes, Brown is treating Phi Psi completely unfairly, on which they should have focused their letter instead of attacking the credibility of the victims’ claims. Justice for the victims of sexual assault come before justice for the fraternity members.

    In the battle between Phi Psi and the University, I completely side with Phi Psi–they are being treated unfairly and are receiving punishment for something their members were not involved. I believe there are injustices faced by both Phi Psi and the assaulted students, but the assaulted students’ justice come first, absolutely.

    • Greek Alum

      Justice is never coming for that victim (from Brown at least). Rather than remove the accused student from campus they have gone scorched earth on greek student organizations. The university didn’t do anything after the QA wrote in an open letter in blue stockings that SPG had been a rape facilitator on campus for several years!

    • ’15

      A couple of points to address in your comment:

      There may not have been a sexual assault at all. The accused perpetrator may still be on campus because he was not found to be guilty of an assault. I hate to say this but remember, the two women (only one of whom claimed to be assaulted) claimed to have been drugged at Phi Psi but that has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt to be false. Not by the inconclusive test on the first woman, but the negative result on the second one when they shared one and only one drink. So how do we know absolutely that there was an assault at all, which by the way never was stated to have occurred at Phi Psi. So in this case, justice for the fraternity actually may come before justice for the woman. Especially since that woman incorrectly accused Phi Psi of drugging her in the first place.

      Tricky, huh?

  • Recent Alum

    Evan –

    You will find out very soon that your opinion piece is poorly thought out and highly questionable in its rhetoric and conclusions. By equating Fox (whom you clearly believe is evil) and Phi Kappa Psi, you demonize the latter behind the banner of the BDH, which makes you just as much of a bully as you accuse others of being. By ignoring the clear fact that until Phi Kappa Psi had its letter published in the Providence Journal, many of its facts were not known to the public, you incorrectly state that this was “airing of dirty laundry” and a “post-victory” statement.

    The letter was the first time most people had an opportunity to learn the true nature of the accuser’s inconclusive test, and that the university knowingly obscured this point from its own community letter only two days earlier. It was also the first time anyone outside a few learned that the alleged assailant was still at Brown, thus showing the hypocrisy of the administration. This was not “machismo, jersey waving…”. Actually, it was the type of information that the BDH – had it actually investigated the case rather than simply reporting on what the deans told it – should have found and published. The BDH came up short; the administration would not permit Phi Psi to publish its letter via the university’s own channels nor would it divulge the facts that it contained (nor the fact that the second woman’s test was negative, which was left out of Phi Psi’s letter and is still communicated by the administration but is true). Therefore, to save whatever is left of its reputation and the opportunity for its members to have something resembling a manageable college experience, the fraternity had to make some of the facts public somehow. And they did so while still being respectful to the very women who accused them, incorrectly.

    If there is an agenda being published, with someone using an institution (read: BDH) to berate others by taking advantage of a position of “power and authority” (read: Opinions Editor), it is you Evan.

  • Guest

    First off, I’m a friend of Phi Psi, so allow me to declare my biases straight off the bat. However, that being said, I realize that this is a highly partisan issue, with no clear moral high ground. I’ve been attempting to take all related media coverage in perspective, and find out where the person was coming from rather than openly rejecting their arguments.

    This column, however, is the first where that’s simply not possible. The metaphors the author draws upon are absurd, unjustified, and deleterious to an understanding of the current situation.

    If someone is accused of a crime they didn’t commit, and they speak out about it, is that abusing “male privilege”? You mention that Phi Psi was punished for “creating an unhealthy and unsafe environment,” and there’s a certain degree of merit to those charges. Had the University proceeded under those terms from the very beginning, perhaps there would be less cause for concern here. But instead, they decided to wrap up the entire case around charges of drugging that were unfounded, jeopardizing both the womens’ and the fraternity’s well being in the process.

    And the fraternity, for calling attention to this, is relegated to Fox News status? Isn’t that a tad bit extreme? I know that, as bastions of male privilege, fraternities have a unique obligation to navigate these situations carefully, to avoid crossing lines into censorship and oppression. I don’t think Phi Psi’s crossed the lines you claim they have, and nothing in your article has convinced me otherwise.

    • Greek Alum

      There actually is very clear moral high ground and no partisanship necessary for understanding the absolute embarrassment that is the university’s scapegoating of greek houses in response to the title IX lawsuit filed in the wake of Lena Sclove’s work.

      The QA writes in an article that SPG has facilitated campus rape for years and the university stays completely silent. Absolutely zero ramifications to the QA from the university for this admission of guilt. A student is raped on campus, not at phi psi, not by someone in phi psi, the girl was at a Phi Psi party earlier in the night and says she was given GHB at the party. I’ll even give Brown the not true fact that the girl was actually given GHB. What blame does Phi Psi deserve for one student, unaffiliated with them, putting GHB in a drink he acquired from the bar and then gave to his intended victim? Ok, so they deserve blame for throwing an unregistered party. Fair enough. Look back at the Greek Council minutes, the punishment for that has been 1 or 2 semesters of probation – which means no parties but you still exist and if you go 1 or 2 semesters without any other violations of any sort you go back to normal. This 4 year ban (now reduced to 2.5 although Brown now says it wasn’t about the GHB per say) is nonsensical. Need I explain the absurdity of the Sigma Chi suspension too? Do I need to go into how it makes zero sense for the university to now ban all student groups from hosting parties in dorms yet any student can take it upon themselves to host one?

      All the while, not a single student misconduct hearing for the alleged rapist who is walking around campus free to assault other women. Maybe there’s no clear moral high ground, but Brown is in the moral sewers right now for sure – and anyone who thinks Brown is acting on behalf of anyone’s interests but their own throughout this whole thing either needs to really think about what’s happening or get their head examined.

  • alumni

    Everybody is welcome to have their own opinions, but the opinions stated in this column are misinformed, dismissive, and plainly ignorant of the facts. This column is bad journalism and it should not have found its way into a newspaper.

    • Waterman Coffee

      Everybody is singlular. “Their” is plural. Bad grammar. And you went to Brown?

      • alumni

        The ‘singular they’ has been used and comprehended in both spoken and written English as a singular pronoun with gender ambiguity since the time of Chaucer’s ‘The Canterbury Tales’. ‘Phe’ is not a common colloquialism, and ‘they’ is accepted as standard. In turn, ‘their’ is the accepted possessive. My grammar is correct, my diploma is real, and hopefully you’ve learned something from reading this today.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they