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February 28, 2013

Representative example

We act appropriately when representing institutions—why not do the same when acting on our own?

Earlier this month, a fraternity chapter at Emerson College, Phi Alpha Tau, raised $16,000 to help a transgender initiate pay for transition surgery. Donnie Collins’s insurance company wouldn’t help him out, so his brothers did. It’s a heartwarming, stereotype-challenging story.

Something else happened this month. A friend of mine saw two students at our school impersonate fraternity brothers and yell the word “faggot” at passersby. Perhaps that’s what they imagine people in Greek life do in their spare time. Unbeknownst to the pranksters, one of the passersby was gay. Not only were their actions homophobic, they also misrepresented an organization to which they do not belong. Progressiveness among fraternities is not a new thing. In 2009, in response to the Westboro Baptist Church’s march on campus, the brothers of Alpha Delt danced to Diana Ross’s “I’m Coming Out.” Fraternities are conscious of the stereotypes that have been historically associated with them. At schools like ours, they try and steer clear of controversy; their checkered past regulates their current behavior.

The incident my friend saw is interesting and sad because it shows that, when individuals do not feel responsible, they can become worse versions of themselves. It’s unlikely that the students in question are truly homophobic. Rather, they were probably trying to mock an organization they think is homophobic. In doing so they perpetrated an action that neither they, when acting like themselves, nor fraternity members representing their fraternity, would ever consider doing.

It was William Golding’s Lord of the Flies that first showed me how thin the veneer of civilization is. In this classic, a group of British schoolboys marooned on an island descend into savagery. The boys, away from the watchful eyes of society, do things that they would have been incapable of back home in England. At our school, we’re constantly ensuring that our vocabulary is not hurtful and that our actions aren’t divisive. We would like to believe that this is not due to University policing, but rather stems from within us. However, if the University did not have a bias response team that acts on hate crimes, would there be an increase in incidents of discrimination? It pains me to say it, but yes. There probably would be.

Furthermore, many forms of discrimination have been stigmatized to the extent that, if exposed, their perpetrator is subject to humiliation. Michael Richards, for one, will never live down his n-word rant. Is fear of punishment and humiliation the instrument that keeps us from turning on each other? We come to this school and are exposed to intense diversity. We realize that people of all colors and creeds and sexual orientations have similar dreams and hopes. We think that we’ve made progress as individuals and as a society. But a little liquor, the cloak of anonymity, and the absence of authority are enough to erode all of that?

We’ve all heard the “When you go out to this soccer tournament/debate competition/field trip you’re representing X institution and your actions reflect X institution’s values” speech at some point in our lives. This speech used to bother me. I always thought, “I’m an individual and a lot more than this crest on my shirt”. This is a normal reaction because the coach or teacher is often misusing this important lesson just to get us to keep quiet or to walk in straight lines. However, it is important because it implies that your actions are about more than you. You’re acting as an example of the society to which you belong.

Anonymity, or taking an assumed identity, is dangerous because not only are we not beholden to an institution, we are also not even beholden to our visions of our own selves.

In our day-to-day lives we behave without constantly thinking of ourselves as representatives; the only thing seemingly at stake is the perception others have of our personalities. Problems occur when someone’s feelings are at stake. When someone who is not acting as a representative of an institution makes a racist joke, he thinks, “People know me as an individual. They know I’m not a bigot. They get that this is a joke.” This lack of responsibility to an institution gives him that leeway. However, he’s letting himself down by allowing for a dissonance between who he actually is and the temporary racist he’s become during the telling of the joke.

Disguise is even worse because it eliminates accountability altogether. It’s easy to say, “I’m pretending to be a homophobic frat guy. Now listen to me say terrible things because it’s not actually me.” No fraternity member is going to proudly wear his letters, lean out of a window, and yell ‘faggot’—in that moment, he is conscious that he is a representative of something larger than himself.

We use the word ‘representative’ in the context of the institutions with which we are associated. And the attendant responsibility makes us govern our words and actions. When we think of ourselves as ‘representatives’ we tend to observe ourselves the way other people do. We behave with more sensitivity and empathy. In this sense, the brothers of Phi Alpha Tau are sterling representatives of their fraternity and its values. However, our actions are the ‘representatives’ of our selves. Shouldn’t that be more important to us than honoring a motto or a crest? As UChicago students we see ourselves as bright, motivated and socially conscious. Of course, we should try and do justice to our alma mater’s values. However, firstly, we should be trying to do justice to our own visions of ourselves.

Raghav Rao is a fourth-year in the College majoring in English.

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