Last week, as part of the pledge process, members of the Yale chapter of the Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity (DKE) led prospective members across campus chanting, among other obscenities "No means YES! Yes means ANAL!" under the windows of freshman dormitories. That night, members of the Yale Women's Center helped to coordinate the outrage that was being expressed across campus and published an op-ed condemning the chants.
The editorial board of the Yale Daily News responded with an editorial placing blame squarely on... the Women's Center.
Often, the boisterous will stop at nothing to get a rise out of others -- especially when they know just the right buttons to push. Last Wednesday, the pledges of Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity issued just such a provocation. As they chanted their way across campus, the rest of us were forced to listen to tasteless jibes involving obscenity, jingoism and necrophilia.
But then came the coup-de-grace: "No means yes, yes means anal." By making light of rape, the pledges crossed a line. In this newspaper's view, the chanting was idiotic and offensive, and it should not be repeated.
And yet, as groups rushed to condemn the foolhardy DKE bros, they threw overwrought epithets, some almost as absurd as the chants themselves... As the Center responded with histrionics, what could have been an opportunity for our campus to maturely and gracefully reprove public stupidity and affirm mutual respect turned into a daylong, private spat.
Thankfully, students responded to this editorial, disputing its characterization of the Women's Center as histrionic and taking issue with the weasel words that seem to absolve the DKE brothers of culpability ('boisterous' 'provocateurs'). Even after the YDN printed a half-hearted clarification (in the increasingly common "Sorry that people chose to take offense" framing), one of their major errors remains uncorrected.
The YDN editorial board puts the onus of defusing the controversy on the people who were wronged. Even worse, they assume that, when faced with abusive and offensive speech, women ought to be trying to defuse the situation to begin with.
The goal of women and the Women's Center is not to 'gracefully reprove public stupidity' and then move on, but to change the blasé attitudes about sexual assault that caused DKE to think this chant was acceptable in the first place. The fact that the controversy has not settled down is a victory, not a loss.
The Yale Women's Center and women are not required to mute their criticism of aggressively misogynist speech out of fear of offending the transgressors. Responsibility for creating a helpful dialogue and a teachable moment can't be assigned solely to the wronged party. If the only way to engage the DKE boys in dialogue is to ignore the gravity of their offence, as the YDN was inclined to do, nothing would be gained. Minimizing the problem to the point of insignificance is not a victory.
The Women's Center is an advocacy group pushing for the radical goal of equal and respectful treatment of women on campus. If that position makes it awkward for the Women's Center to step into the role of moderator during campus controversies, the Yale administration should take an active role managing the discussion, rather than leaving it to students to resolve in a strange attempt at neutrality.
Leadership doesn't have to take the form of disciplinary action, but the Yale administration could be doing a lot more to establish expectations for acceptable conduct on campus and in civil society. It's a shame that the a cappella rush at Yale is conducted with clearer, more frequently enforced rules than the fraternity pledge process, especially when this is the second time in two years that a fraternity has made public, aggressive misogynist behavior a part of their recruitment pitch.
The worst thing Yale could do would be to follow the YDN's lead and decide vocal controversy and outrage is the problem that needs to be resolved, rather than the offensive behavior that provoked it.
Follow Leah Anthony Libresco on Twitter: www.twitter.com/leahlibresco