Amanda Bennett, a journalist and author, is a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
All human beings have a right to be idiots. Young people in particular have a right to be idiots. All people have the right to put the past behind them. People have a right to think, and in fact to say, whatever they want.
People should be judged on their actions and not be penalized for what they say in their private conversations. I’ve read too much about China’s thought police not to be aware of the perils. Nor am I very fond of condemning people solely on the basis of what I learn from private e-mail-forwarding and iPhone uploading.
So let us draw a merciful curtain before this child Evan Spiegel (and make no mistake about it — all his potential zillions from Snapchat don’t obscure the fact that even at 23, he’s not very far removed from the child he was then). Let us leave the chief executive of this disappearing-photo startup alone with his growing up, self-reflection and self-abnegation, be it sincere or not, for the cache of e-mails that someone — presumably a frat pal on the receiving end — made available for all to read last week.
Instead, let us, all the rest of us, thank both him and the anonymous leaker for the x-ray vision they have given us into a world that many suspected existed but had no real way to know for sure. Then, after giving thanks, I would like to exhort all mothers, fathers, college administrators, young men, young women and, above all, employers to take a deep breath and read the e-mails in their entirety.
And then, I want us all to ask ourselves: What do we do with the knowledge we now have?
(By the way, this isn’t like steaming open an envelope or hacking into an e-mail account: These were hardly secret conversations between besties. The messages were sent to an e-mail address that Stanford’s IT site identifies as a group mailing list, and the tone is of a guy addressing a large group of fellow partiers. It seems safe to assume that these charming messages were sent, if not to all his Kappa Sigma brothers, then to quite a large number of them.)
So now I will wait while you go and read the things I can’t have printed in this newspaper because of the vivid words used to describe what the alcohol they buy will do to sorority girls (hint: it involves getting them into a state that will cause them to want to have sex indiscriminately); paeans to alcoholic blacking out; how it feels to get so drunk that you soak that night’s sexual partner with urine; and finally, exhortations to the bros to aspirational sexual behavior that skirts the thin edge of rape.
So now that you are back, I would ask you to consider: Are these just words? Clearly there is a lot of hormonal prancing there. Yet, given what we know about binge drinking on campus, I think we all know that the references to blackouts are real. Aren’t the references to sexual domination and contempt real, too? And if we long ago acknowledged that what we now only coyly refer to as the N-word is a real word with real powers to hurt, then why do we feel differently about allowing ourselves, our daughters, our sisters to be called bitches and whores as if it were funny?
Parents: Maybe some of you are so rich that what goes on at college doesn’t matter. Others may be so lustful for the brand (Stanford in this case, but it could be almost anywhere) that the content of the actual experience is irrelevant. For the rest of you, however, now that you have read those e-mails, decide for yourself whether you might want to be slightly more engaged parents on this issue as well as slightly more demanding consumers of the institutions that are taking your $50,000 or so a year. (And if you think, as I know most of you will, that this is someone else’s school, someone else’s child, someone else’s fraternity and not yours, then you are smoking something stronger than your kids are. This past weekend I passed the e-mails around to eight 19- to 25-year-olds, including my own kids, and every one of them recognized something or someone he or she knew.)
Schools: I hope a lot of parents (and perhaps even as important, donors and recruiters) begin taking more seriously your responsibility for what is going on between their sons and daughters at your institutions. And I hope you are ready.
Young men: I completely agree with the #notallmen hashtag. It is clearly not all men who are this vile. You who are not need to stand up against those who are.
Young women: You are party to this, too. Read those e-mails. If you like what you see, keep going to those rages. Sex on your own terms is great, ladies. But are you sure it is on your terms? Is it sex you read in those e-mails, or power? Is that really where you want to be on the power spectrum?
Employers: Speaking of power, I would ask employers who recruit at fraternities to think about what it is they are buying. How will the contempt that these men express for women in these e-mails continue to infect your workplaces in the years to come?
When you recruit from places like Stanford’s Kappa Sigma, are you getting the “national network of hard working, respectful, and in most cases socially competent” men that the frat’s Web site promises? Or are you getting the filth and misogyny of the e-mails?
And does that matter to you?