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Apples vs. Icebergs: Who's Right?

by on April 01, 2015 6:30 AM

I want to return to the dueling "bad apples" vs. "tip of the iceberg" perspectives on the photos of unconscious and unclad women that were posted on a Penn State fraternity's Facebook page.

Apples and Icebergs agree on one thing: The taking and posting of such photos is despicable.

Where they differ is in their sense of whether the Kappa Delta Rho members' actions are indicative of a larger problem.

Apples take a narrowly legalistic approach: Punish those who committed crimes. Don't condemn all Greeks.

Icebergs take a broadly cultural approach. When multiple members of a group commit similar outrages, be they football players, cops, fraternity brothers or university administrators, it makes sense to ask whether their behavior reflects the group's ethos.

In his column for this site last week, Jay Paterno wrote that "we must not fall into the trap of believing that an individual's acts are always a reflection of the group that person belongs to, or of some 'culture' fostered by that group."

Paterno's an Apple. I agree with his "always": Certainly there are plenty of individuals who act in ways that are totally at odds with the values of their culture. Any statement that begins with "all" – all white cops are racists, all Penn Staters care more about football than about protecting kids from a child molester, all Greeks are sexual predators – is probably going to be false.

But we humans are cultural creatures, through and through. From babyhood on, we imitate the people around us. As we mature, we begin to choose our influences, which is to say, we join subcultures. With group membership comes a vocabulary, a style, a set of ritualized behaviors, a worldview.

Even "nonconformists" – goths, hipsters, skinheads and the like -- conform. We wouldn't recognize individuals as members of those subcultures if they didn't.

Apples caution against guilt by association and rushes to judgment. They call for restraint until the facts are known. They challenge sweeping generalizations that are unsupported by data.

But data, say the Icebergs, can only tell us so much.

Take sexual assaults. At this writing, the Daily Collegian's running count of reported assaults since the start of the spring semester stands at 20. Considered as a percentage of all the human interactions that have occurred in State College since January, that's a tiny number.

Most women have not been sexually assaulted. Most men have not committed sexual assaults. That is true even if we factor in the unknown number of sexual assaults that have not been reported.

It's easy to brand the sexual predators in our midst as sociopathic outliers and absolve everyone else of all responsibility. But Icebergs ask whether those who are committing sexual assaults are absorbing messages from the subculture of which they are members that say there is nothing wrong with having sex with someone who is too drunk to consent.

If that's a norm, you have a culture of rape. If 144 members and former members of a fraternity are entertained by a Facebook page that displays photos that never should have been taken, that too, suggests, if not a culture of rape, then certainly a culture that condones the mistreatment of women.

When we turn our attention from legal culpability to moral responsibility, things become more complicated than separating the guilty from the innocent. To cite an obvious example, responsibility for the Holocaust lies not just with those who carried out Hitler's orders, but with everyone on both sides of the Atlantic who looked the other way.

The famous Edmund Burke quote applies: "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing."

To say that the group should not be blamed for the misdeeds of the individual is to dodge the question of how the group's norms, or even its silences, enable the miscreant.

At the State Theatre last week, Caitlin Flanagan, the writer of a scathing piece on fraternities for the Atlantic last year, called fraternities an anachronism. In an age of diversity, she said, they remain bastions of race and gender segregation. We tend to admire adherence to tradition, but a lot of Greek traditions – exclusion, hazing, dubiously consensual drunken sex – are pretty nasty.

Knowing how entrenched fraternities are, Flanagan suggested that it might be more fruitful to attack the real problem bedeviling universities: alcohol abuse.

When an audience member said the drinking culture was likewise too entrenched to dislodge, Flanagan recalled that people said much the same thing when cigarettes were found to be a health hazard. Yet millions of people quit smoking.

Binge drinking and dubiously consensual sex have become cultural norms on college campuses. But cultural norms can change.



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A collection of Russell Frank's columns, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won first place for commentary in the 2019 Society of Professional Journalists Keystone Chapter Best in Journalism contest. The winning columns: The Women’s March: Notes from New York, It’s Time to Change the Script and Mixed Messages at Bellefonte High. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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