When Meaning Well Isn’t Enough (One more response to the Yale frat)

I’ve been reading about the Yale situation all week (you know, the one where the DKE fraternity pledges chanted “no means yes, yes means anal” among other things). Ashley mentioned it here on Monday, and I’ve read a lot of great responses, both from Yale students and from other writers.

But today I watched the video for the first time (or listened, it’s mostly audio) and was really disturbed. Reading about it is gross. Hearing a large group of men chant those words, loud and aggressively, over and over is actually really frightening. And it was right after I listened that I read this interview Tracy Clark-Flory did over at Salon with a DKE brother who wasn’t involved. And though he repeats over and over how the behavior wasn’t representative of DKE as a whole, and none of the members would “condone sexual violence”—in fact they are all respectful of women!—I couldn’t find it in me to be sympathetic. I appreciate his honesty and the clear remorse and embarrassment, but there is an inability to connect the dots that I find really frustrating.

The anonymous DKE brother refers to the chanting as an “unfortunate joke,” notes that it was “wrong” and inappropriate” and points out that the frat apologized (actually I thought it was a pretty good apology, as these things go) and has been taking steps to make sure some kind of productive dialogue comes out of all this. But he maintains that the vile language isn’t indicative of any real misogyny, either at an individual level or within the fraternity system in general. When asked about the general association between frats and misogyny, he says:

The first reason is that fraternities are one of the few remaining all-male institutions still in existence, and therefore have become associated with the misogyny more typical of a previous time.

Well, I actually think that chanting “no means no, yes means anal” and “fucking sluts” is actually pretty indicative of our time. I see this tendency, among many young men and women,  to separate words from action. We’ve all heard it before—just because I’m calling something “gay” doesn’t mean I have anything against gay people; now, just because I’m chanting about raping a woman doesn’t mean I’d really do it. And I’m sure that the vast majority of the DKE brothers chanting that stuff don’t condone violence against women. In fact I’m sure most of them are perfectly nice guys. But language can be violent too. And just because you didn’t intend it to sound that way, doesn’t mean it can’t sound that way.

So it’s not enough to say “we didn’t mean it, and it doesn’t reflect our values.” It’s not even enough to recognize it as violent in its own right. You need to stop and consider how language like this became a “joke,” how anyone thought it was a funny/acceptable pledge chant, and how none of the men refused to go along with the plan. This doesn’t happen by accident—it happens because even really well-meaning people don’t think about the role of language in structural oppression. Or to put it simply: they don’t think about how words matter, or about how the words and the actual physical/sexual violence are both part of a culture that downplays violence against women. The fact is that even if you can cite a lot of social changes that denote a move away from “misogyny of a previous time,” what happened at Yale didn’t happen in a vacuum. It has a history, and the men chanting have a place in that history that they should be able to recognize.

I dunno. I’ve had a long week and I’m not sure how articulate I’m being. I think what it comes down to is this: I’ll be really happy when I’m living in a world where no one could, with any sincereity, claim that they truly respect women and don’t condone violence while also engaging in shit like this. Because in this perfect world, everyone will understand the inherent conflict in those words and actions, as well as the connection between words and action on a much larger scale.

    3 thoughts on “When Meaning Well Isn’t Enough (One more response to the Yale frat)

    1. Beautifully written, Sarah! I think this is exactly what needs to be said, and you’ve said it with precision and elegance.

    2. I think the point about language can’t be stressed enough – and not just from a feminist perspective. The words we use matter so much (as does who says them and in what context). In this case, I think the words used were just as damning as the identities of the participants, but the video adds something else: context. The context is what makes this (in my opinion) an act of terrorism.

    3. @colleen: Thanks!!

      @katy: I generally squirm at the use of the word “terrorism,” but I think we’re on the same page. The context here is really striking—the use of the words as initiation into a “brotherhood,” the turning of a public space into an unsafe space…it ISN’T just about the language, you’re right. So many contextual factors make the language feel/sound particularly violent/dangerous/hurtful/powerful…