Asking the Difficult Question

They bombarded us with warnings about the consequences of irresponsible drinking even before I got to college. The high school principal, teachers, and guidance counselors wanted us to understand that binge drinking is a serious matter — it leads to deaths. When I arrived at Yale, freshman counselors, college deans, and parents sternly reminded us of the same message. This time, they also talked about sexual health and the importance of verbal consent.

Of course, none of this surprised me. Clearly there is a growing awareness about the dangers associated with college-style drinking and hostile sexual climates. Last year, I read an article in Rolling Stone that was referred to me by my brother, friends, and websites like It was about one student’s account of how Dartmouth’s frat culture dehumanizes their pledges. I googled around, wondering how credible the story was since it described things that seemed too gruesome to be true (stuff involving vomit and various other human wastes). One related article linked me to another and soon I found myself with a mess of tabs open in my browser, each with a story and an opinion about the shortcomings of college culture. The discussion was fierce, opinions were expressed through bold rhetoric and provocative claims. I discovered a scandal that occurred only two years ago at the college I was preparing to attend: pledges of the Yale fraternity Delta Kappa Epsilon, known as DKE, had chanted misogynistic slurs outside the Women’s Center. I spent that entire night going through a torrent of news reports, blog posts, and opinion editorials; some of them commented on campus culture, some of them denounced the Yale administration. Long threads of comments trailed each article, not just the casual musings of regular readers or the deliberately offensive statements of internet trolls, but substantial comments by people who cared about the issue. All of this sparked by one incident? Unlikely — this was definitely not just a passing concern, not just one of those controversies that inexplicably comes and goes. Behind this single Yale scandal was a fierce, ongoing debate about a serious problem in college culture.

I was amazed that nobody brought this up; not my freshman counselor, not my college dean, not the president of Yale. Not even in the context of talking about sexual safety did they mention anything about the DKE scandal that occurred only two years ago. Instead, to justify their grave warnings, they said, “it’s for your safety.” Drinking is bad because it has immediate dangers associated with it: it can lead to inappropriate sexual activity, it can leave someone physically vulnerable in a dangerous situation, drinking too much poisons the body. Lack of sexual consent is bad because someone’s emotional and physical safety is violated when he or she is pressured into unwanted sexual activity. Not to mention, both are illegal.

Yes, safety is an important consideration, but is that all that is important? While I acknowledge that this is a legitimate concern, I am not just interested in what is safe; I am interested in what is moral — in what is right. Why, during orientation, did nobody approached the issues of drinking and sex from the ethical lens I had encountered in the online articles? I can understand why counselors and deans would refrain from offering these views; the matter gets to be intimately personal, inevitably leading to discussions of individual values and such. But why did these mentor figures, meant to guide us through our first days of college, pretend that drinking and sex is only an issue when physical and emotional safety is concerned? From what I read in the articles and comments, the scandal didn’t stir up the greater community so aggressively because someone might have gotten emotionally or physically hurt; the event was so controversial because a group of Yale students came together and collectively did something so obviously immoral. Not one of the participants paused to think about what they were saying, why they were saying it, and whom they were saying it to. This is what disturbs me the most — that it was a real example of the herd mentality authors like Orwell, Huxley, and Bradbury warned us about.

The morality of college-style drinking and sex needs to be discussed in a more open and purposeful manner. Many of the authors of the blogs and articles I read were students of Yale College with distinctive voices, whose contributions fueled the discussion. So why should it be any different in the common room, the dining hall, or the courtyard? Oftentimes in casual conversations, students will shy away from critically examining college students’ attitudes towards drinking and sex, mirroring the way Yale mentors avoided the question. They avoid questions like, Why are binge-drinking and the one night stand glorified? Should they be glorified? I take it that in general, people are afraid to critique the accepted ethical norms for fear of making moral judgments on individuals. But mute acceptance of the popular attitudes is itself a moral judgment because without criticism, the social atmosphere can begin to impose the very moral pressures people try to prevent. Furthermore, our ethical choices affect our personal lives in significant ways that extend beyond just the realm of safety. Ethical choices can also profoundly affect our happiness and our personal growth. Given the stakes, I don’t think ubiquity is a reason to assume that the given standards are right and more importantly, it is not a reason to assume that the standards are universally accepted and that conversation is unnecessary. Clearly not everybody agrees with the stereotypical college party mentality. Individuals are the ones disagreeing and starting the conversation in the first place.

The larger and more essential question is this: what do I as an individual think about the morality of the behavior around me? The DKE incident happened because individuals each made a decision to participate, whether consciously or unconsciously. A community’s ethical norms rest on individual values and decisions, so in questioning the ethics, it would make sense to also question personal values, those both of oneself and of others. The platitude, “Don’t judge,” warns us to avoid attacking others’ personal values and it is often the response I get when I start challenging the glorification of binge-drinking and the “hook up” culture. The phrase is an easy out for those who confuse honest discussion with dogmatic assertion, for those who fear confronting the difficult yet important topics that loom close to personal values. People can’t stand to face questions like, “Why do some college students choose to get drunk and suffer a hangover repeatedly?” “Why are one-night stands in which the two partners never speak to each other again considered worthwhile?” When I or others pose these questions, we are not declaring our moral superiority. Rather, we are looking for honest discussion about a subject that matters to us. Of course we all hold different beliefs as to what is right and wrong, and sometimes one person’s values can directly oppose another’s in a very antagonizing and uncomfortable way. But that’s okay — the point is not to simply agree with others or reach the same conclusions. The point is to agree to have this crucial conversation, to ask the questions that matter but too often have been passed over in silence.

I don’t believe that wild and shameless partying is anything glorious. In fact, I have more than a few moral qualms about it and because of this, I ask questions like these: in parties, why is alcohol nicknamed the “social lubricant,” and treated as a replacement for honest conversation? Why do some people admit to using alcohol as a way to tolerate “how bad the parties are?” If the parties are that bad, why go at all? It seems that students feel obliged not only to avoid evaluating the culture, but also to participate in it. I wonder how happy they are, and I suspect that not all of them feel comfortable if some need alcohol for such reasons, in such high quantities. One Yale guest columnist writes, “Trust me: freshman year means no shame. To the contrary—you will cherish your poor choices. You will delight to see that hook-up—whom you will not acknowledge—eating in your dining hall.” From the freshmen I’ve met so far, I don’t think most of us intend to treat our first year at Yale as a chance to recklessly indulge ourselves, to “cherish” mistakes because “freshman year means no shame.” So why aren’t more students advocating alternatives to this reckless, shameless attitude? My friend offered this explanation: people engage in the popular college culture because it feels liberating to do something traditionally considered taboo. But then again, I’m not satisfied with this answer. I think there’s something else motivating this unrestrained, unashamed behavior. Personally, I suspect that it has something to do with a lack of careful thought about one’s choices. I don’t think most college students are rational hedonists who consume dangerous amounts of liquor and wake up in strangers’ beds after thinking it through with reason, concluding that this was in their best interest.

One way to rephrase the difficult question is: What do I really want? Fondly called the “bright college years,” we are told by older folk that college is a time to find ourselves, to discover more about our own identities. It is also a time to continue creating ourselves. I intend to do just that by forming my own opinions and voicing them with an ear to what others have to say. I will either agree or disagree with the views of popular culture, but always with my own reasons, always with an evaluative focus. But most importantly, I hope to inform and possibly amend my personal moral values by the wide variety of perspectives I will encounter in honest discussions and hopefully, in honest behavior.

And I will always be asking myself, What do I think is right?

Tagged under Essays