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Another Woo People Discovery: They Have Very Thin Skins

by on April 29, 2011 6:00 AM

A friend tells me she doesn’t like it when columnists give themselves the last word in their conversations with their readers.

“You had your say,” she tells me. “Move on.”

That may have been true in the olden days of print journalism, but here in cyberspace, the ability to post comments has given readers the last word. Fine by me. I’ll just respond to some of the many responses to my column on the “secrets” of Sigma Chi, then the name-callers can call me names all over again, and then we’ll be done.

By way of preamble, let me say that I always have mixed feelings when I write a controversial column. The rabble-rouser in me is pleased to have gotten a rise out of people. For many columnists, the only bad column is one that sinks with nary a ripple. The part of me that values everyone’s good opinion, however, regrets having incurred people’s wrath.

So let me get out of my defensive crouch and revisit my decision to publish – and make fun of – the pledge week instructions that a friend found on the pavement. My thinking was that even if the specific rituals and prohibitions in the “Instructions for I-Period” are secret, the general fact that fraternities have rituals and prohibitions is not a secret. I thought some readers would be interested in hearing about some of these odd practices; I didn’t see how the fraternity would be harmed by their revelation.

Should I have checked with the fraternity first? I considered it. I imagine they would have tried to talk me out of it.  I doubt they would have succeeded. At most I might have included their objections in the column.

I concede that if the men of Sigma Chi feel harmed by what I wrote, then they are harmed, no matter how much I think they should not feel harmed. I confess that I don’t feel all that guilty about it, especially in light of the following:

  • Not even the angriest posters explained how, exactly, they were harmed by what I divulged.
  • A couple of Sigma Chi brothers from other chapters wrote that while the pledges are supposed to keep mum on the rigors of “I-week,” the rigors themselves aren’t secrets. (A couple contended that the rituals I described are not standard practice nationally and thought the PSU pledges were being hazed – which is a far harsher view than my own: The rituals seem more silly than sadistic.)

I look at it this way: All of our rituals, if we regard them with any detachment, are absurd in the sense that they’re arbitrary, like the rules of a game. We insist that things be done just so, knowing that really, none of the planets will spin out of their orbits if we violate the commandments. Outside of the context of the game, it doesn’t matter in the least if the foot of a person catching a football crosses a chalk line.

For this reason, we are advised not to take ourselves too seriously.

The most striking thing about most of the nasty comments was that the writers seemed to have no clue that they had read a humor column, not a news story. This is not to say that they should have been amused: Humor is subjective. A joke that cracks one person up can land with a thud in the brainpan of another. But we expect people to recognize a joke when they see or hear one (unless they’re from a different culture).

True, humor has its aggressive side, as Freud pointed out, but only the most fragile egos experience a joke as a vicious attack. Man up, guys! You sound like crybabies.

A couple of other points …

To the writers who demanded to know how I would feel if someone disclosed my secrets in print:

There’s a meaningful difference between writing about an organization and writing about an individual. If there had been a name on the sheet of I-week rules, I would not have printed it. Fraternities, on the other hand, are public entities, like the university itself, like the NBA, like the Democratic Party, like the American Association of Beekeepers. As such, they are subject to scrutiny, praise, criticism and, yes, gentle teasing.

To the writers who assumed that I hate fraternities – and to the person who assumed I hate fraternities because I couldn’t get into any:

As one who didn’t have the slightest interest in joining a fraternity back in my undergraduate days I find them interesting, occasionally funny and, as a neighbor, occasionally annoying. Part of the reason it’s fun to tweak the Greeks is that to hear them tell it, they’re all about ‘Thon and academics and not at all about loud, drunken parties. Spare us the false piety.

And finally, to the person who cursed me and my “obnoxiously wide forehead”:

Good one!



Russell Frank worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State in 1998. He roots for the Yankees, plays blues guitar and harmonica (badly), bikes and hikes for physical exercise and does The New York Times crossword puzzle for mental exercise. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away all the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. He is the author of "Newslore: Contemporary Folklore on the Internet." His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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