The first time I was told I was going to hell, I was nine.
You see, back home, I am an ethnic (or racial, depending on who you ask) minority. I was one of 5 Jewish kids in my 1300-person high school, and, once people knew, they didn’t let me forget it. I was harassed pretty severely my freshman year of high school, to the point that I considered transferring. I probably would have, if a friend had not stepped in and put an end to it.
It’s exhausting to be reminded, again and again, that you’re different. If you’ve been constantly told that you don’t fit in, or had your differences pointed out to you (or to others) in public, humiliating ways, you would be angry, and rightfully so. And I can see how that would be especially disillusioning if you came here expecting a place where you could be freed of it.
But at the same time, I think that as a community we have to step back and examine all the assumptions we came in with. I’ll start. I wasn’t aware how I had imported my own assumptions into Swarthmore (where, as you may have noticed, I am no longer a minority in any sense of the word) until a talk on the compatibility of religion and science last spring. After the talk, because I disagreed with many members of the Swarthmore Christian Fellowship (SCF) community, I was invited to attend an SCF meeting the following Sunday to continue the discussion.
I hesitated, then declined.
Now, it is important to clarify that my refusal was not based on distrust of the motives of any member of SCF. I greatly admire and respect the members who invited me, and I have no doubt that my religious views would be respected in turn. So why did I feel so uncomfortable at the prospect of attending a Christian-defined meeting? In my experience, invitations to Christian events were often issued with the subtext ‘Let me show you the error of your ways’. After 18 years of having my ‘other’-ness rubbed in my face, I am incredibly uncomfortable in formalized Christian settings. In a sense, I was projecting onto SCF a set of preformed assumptions that were associated with a group that was similar, but not the same.
And this, I think, is part of what has been going on in the dispute over the referendum. Accusations have been irresponsibly thrown around, to the point that everyone has been backed into a corner. Now, it is necessary to take a step back. The vote is in, and Greek life is going to be a part of our campus. There are some valid issues that have been raised by this discussion. Instances of sexual assault on campus must be addressed by the administration, the fraternities, and the student body. This is a very difficult issue, and dealing with it will take a lot more work than meetings and workshops. But that’s a conversation for a different article.
I want to talk about the tone. There is very little willingness on either side to sit down and seriously think about a) the assumptions that have been made by both parties and b) the tone with which these assumptions are conveyed. Both sides succumbed to the temptation of responding only to the loudest and most extreme voices of the opposition, (especially when those voices made arguments that were personally offensive) at the expense of addressing very real, very important points that were being made. There has been an intense unwillingness to step back and consider the personal experiences and motivations that led to the opposition in the first place. There are valid reasons for taking issue with Greek life, just as there are valid reasons for belonging to a fraternity. We go through our days knowing very little about the people around us, and yet we constantly project knowledge, motivations, intentions, and ideas onto them.
Is there a way to fix this? One part of the answer is community meetings, which are already taking place. These are necessary and will be constructive if approached with an open mind. But it is conversations between individuals—not meetings between members of both parties—will make the greatest difference. This must be left up to the student body. It is time, now, for members of each side to reach out and talk one on one, in order to give each other the chance to really explain the nuances of their stances.
Which brings me back to my own story. To this day I cannot get past that discomfort, even though the SCF has been nothing but kind and welcoming. If I cannot get past my own discomfort in the presence of a community that has been nothing but respectful of my beliefs and feelings, how can we expect those who have had genuinely awful experiences with fraternities in the past to just ‘get over it’? That delegitimizes their feelings and reduces their concerns to the level of mine; projecting. At the same time, members of the opposition cannot broadly paint fraternities at Swarthmore with the same set of associations that they have with Greek culture in other contexts. This is hurtful, unfair, potentially libelous, and counterproductive way to deal with the very real issues of sexual assault, homophobia, and marginalization on campus. Like it or not, to effectively deal with these issues, all of us—fraternities, sorority, opposition, the larger student body, and the administration—will need to work together.
I still have conversations with my SCF friends, but because I feel uncomfortable in a Christian setting, they take place in neutral places like McCabe or Sharples. To this day, we still disagree on a number of issues. But our disagreements are understood in a context of mutual respect. In the same way, I ask you, my peers, not only to reach out and facilitate one-on-one discussions, but also to approach such conversations with respect and give each other the benefit of the doubt when reacting to their concerns and motivations.
In fact, I would like to start that process right now. I have not conveyed everything that I want to convey; that would be completely impossible outside of a real conversation. But I am asking you to give me the benefit of the doubt and to assume that my intentions are good. If you want to point out a place that I used language you find questionable, if you feel I have made too many assumptions, or if you disagree with what I have said, or would like me to clarify, I am reachable in person or by email, and we have a comment section for that very purpose. But respect me, as well as other readers, enough to use your name. I think the time has come for all of us to own our words.
Op-Ed submitted by Eve DiMagno ’15