Our Newest Discontent: The Impossibility of Finding "Common Ground" On An Uneven Playing Field
In December, President Valerie Smith sent an all-school email titled “Finding common ground,” encouraging students to find common ground with those with whom they disagree and to “trust each other’s good intentions.” This email is representative of sentiments often echoed throughout campus during times of tension and in the midst of movements for change. This model of “finding common ground” is a noble ideal, and often an effective way to start conversations about disagreements, but, particularly now, it feels hard to reconcile this model with the realities of power hierarchies and inequity on Swarthmore’s campus. Further, the fight for a just, violence-free campus is not a mere argument or disagreement—it is a high stakes practice in resistance, with concrete, material effects on students’ lives. Oftentimes, the people who suggest a “common ground” solution are those most distant from the intimate effects of the conversation.
This week, due to individual fraternity members’ misogynistic and homophobic public actions, the re-release of Organizing 4 Survivors’ demands, and most recently the creation of a website that shares stories of harm done at Swarthmore fraternities, Swarthmore’s fraternities have come under scrutiny by the campus community once more. This week’s actions by fraternity members have reified historical power imbalances between fraternity members—who are predominantly white, straight, wealthy, cis men—and other students on campus, particularly women, queer people, people of color, and disabled students. It is difficult to “trust” the “good intentions” of fraternity members, who have traditionally been in and abused positions of power over other students, especially when they make light of traumatic issues, fail to ally with anti-violence movements, and display a greater interest in preserving the social institutions from which they benefit than in creating safe, equitable, violence-free spaces on campus. These issues are not solely interactional or interpersonal—they are structural. The harmful actions of individual fraternity members are made possible by structures that allow for systematic violence—namely, the fraternities themselves, and Swarthmore College as an institution.
Swarthmore College protects fraternities and their disproportionate power on this campus. Fraternities own their own buildings on campus and informally exert control over other spaces on campus like the A1 table in Sharples. Public Safety does not police fraternity parties in the same way that it polices other parties—an officer has even played beer pong at a fraternity—and fraternity members often do not face repercussions for rule breaking and Title IX violations. Indeed, multiple accounts of harm have been allowed to be swept under the rug in a now predictable pattern: the fraternity in question shuts its doors for a number of months and, like clockwork, it opens anew, with the slate wiped clean. There can be no “common ground” when those who have caused harm have the support of an entire institution behind them, and those who have been harmed do not. For so many students of color, low income students, undocumented students, and international students, potential consequences for similar infractions are much harsher; there is no such luxury of protection.
This request for open dialogue and finding common ground was the same request made of pro-Israel sympathizers and Palestine activists, suggesting that conversations would somehow be helpful to dissuading disagreements on issues of basic human rights. The same rhetoric was employed when survivors of sexual assault requested accountability from administrators last year and now. This is the same energy that is supposed to keep together our beloved community without genuine commitment to intentional care. Dialogue has been happening for years, and clearly is no longer sufficient. We cannot be reliant on dialogue to save us when too few of us are willing to do the work after the conversation is had. We cannot continue to encourage dialogue that is dependent upon the most vulnerable of our community to use their trauma as a point of persuasion. We cannot promote dialogue that treats a request for safety from sexual assault and justice as if it is of equal importance to a request for protecting privilege. Dialogue with no commitment to accountability or substantive action is as unproductive as it is violent.
How can we find common ground on an uneven playing field? Further, whose responsibility is it to compromise in these conversations, and how is that responsibility tied to power hierarchies? What is each party being asked to compromise? Trying to find common ground with those who joke about our trauma is painful, humiliating, and insulting. People in positions of power should be held accountable for the pain and suffering they have caused, and further, should join the fight to dismantle structures that disproportionately advantage them and perpetuate violence. Those who have experienced violence and marginalization in fraternities should not be asked to continue accommodating fraternity members, but rather, fraternity members should be required to contend with their power and privilege, and fight for the liberation of marginalized people.
Fraternity members can espouse as much “woke” rhetoric as they want to, and can donate to as many women’s shelters as they have money to, but at the end of the day, their actions (and inactions) speak louder than their performative allyship; what do their donations matter if they do not challenge the oppressive actions they engage in on this very campus? What are their publicly kind words worth, if their members use racist and homophobic slurs in private?
Our aim is not to condemn, cancel, or alienate fraternity members or those who attend fraternity parties. Rather, we aim to challenge structural injustices perpetuated by this College, and to ask people in positions of power and privilege to make peace with the discomfort that comes with challenging their own privilege. This editorial is an invitation to stop dismissing the testimonies of those you’ve hurt as attacks, and start receiving them as calls to action. We encourage any current fraternity members who want to create a more peaceful and just world to join organizers like O4S in their fight for justice. This cannot be done while also remaining a fraternity member. It is the structure of the fraternity itself—an institution based on power, privilege, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, elitism, and exclusion—that is the problem, not just one bad Instagram comment, one uncomfortable moment at a party, or one bad fraternity member; as such, suspending a fraternity member, deleting an Instagram comment, or hosting more intentionally inclusive parties at the fraternities cannot solve the violence that fraternities enable and create.
Without accountability, there can be no justice. Without a genuine attempt to repair the harm that was done to the individual and the community, there can be no justice. Without the dismantling of institutions that allow for violence, there can be no justice. Dialogue is not transformative or restorative; actions are. In order to engage in transformative justice, people of all different identities and positionalities must be committed to the shared goals of violence prevention and justice, not the goals of preserving their power and privilege, or maintaining their membership in unjust institutions. Until fraternity members are more concerned with violence prevention and justice than they are with “saving the frats,” common ground cannot be reached.
Joy George ‘20, Perspectives Editor
Olivia Robbins ‘21, Culture Editor
Alexis Riddick ‘20, Poetry Editor
Tiffany Wang ‘21, Managing Editor
Citlali Pizarro ‘20, Editor-In-Chief