A few days ago my Washington Post colleague Alyssa Rosenberg wrote a sharp essay noting that conservatives are correct to zero in on manners over legal remedies as a way of handling myriad cultural contretemps (Matt Taylor’s shirt, the Washington Redskins name, etc.):

I may not sympathize with conservative analyses of sexism and racism. But when it comes to identifying potential solutions to bad behavior, conservatives are right to zero in on good manners as a potential solution.

Rosenberg — and the conservatives she references — make a really important point. The inculcation of good manners in society is a way of internalizing what are right and not-so-right forms of behavior. If successful, the virtue of promoting good manners and customs in a society is that they are pretty much self-enforcing. It is therefore superior to enacting legal measures that often lead to, as Rosenberg notes, “the overcriminalization of annoying, inappropriate behavior.”

Here’s the thing, though: because manners and customs are widespread norms for societal behavior, then they are simultaneously capable of being changed, and yet really, really hard to change. It requires concerted action to get a broad mass of society to recognize that behavior that in the past would not have been viewed as problematic is now so. And it’s even more difficult to do so when the behavior rests on a deep bed of customs and traditions that people are loathe to disturb.

To see what I’m getting at, consider Sabrina Rubin Erdely’s devastating Rolling Stone story about the epidemic of rapes occurring at the University of Virginia. The most painful thing about the story is the fact the customs and traditions that are woven into the fabric of U-Va. student life have aided and abetted what can only be described as a culture of rape in some U-Va. fraternities:

Disoriented, Jackie burst out a side door, realized she was lost, and dialed a friend, screaming, “Something bad happened. I need you to come and find me!” Minutes later, her three best friends on campus – two boys and a girl (whose names are changed) – arrived to find Jackie on a nearby street corner, shaking. “What did they do to you? What did they make you do?” Jackie recalls her friend Randall demanding. Jackie shook her head and began to cry. The group looked at one another in a panic. They all knew about Jackie’s date; the Phi Kappa Psi house loomed behind them. “We have to get her to the hospital,” Randall said.
Their other two friends, however, weren’t convinced. “Is that such a good idea?” she recalls Cindy asking. “Her reputation will be shot for the next four years.” Andy seconded the opinion, adding that since he and Randall both planned to rush fraternities, they ought to think this through. The three friends launched into a heated discussion about the social price of reporting Jackie’s rape, while Jackie stood beside them, mute in her bloody dress, wishing only to go back to her dorm room and fall into a deep, forgetful sleep. Detached, Jackie listened as Cindy prevailed over the group: “She’s gonna be the girl who cried ‘rape,’ and we’ll never be allowed into any frat party again.”

As Erdely notes, this debate among a rape victim’s friends is a microcosm of the student culture at U-Va. more generally:

UVA enjoys a reputation as one of the best schools in the country, not to mention a campus so brimming with fun that in 2012 – the year of Jackie’s rape – Playboy crowned it the nation’s number-one party school. Students hold themselves up to that standard: studious by day, wild by night. “The most impressive person at UVA is the person who gets straight A’s and goes to all the parties,” explains fourth-year student Brian Head. Partying traditions fuse the decorum of the Southern aristocracy with binge drinking: At Cavalier football tailgates, the dress code is “girls in pearls, guys in ties” while students guzzle handles of vodka. Not for nothing is a UVA student nicknamed a Wahoo, as undergrads like to explain; though derived from a long-ago yell from Cavalier fans, a wahoo is also a fish that can drink twice its own body weight.
Wahoos are enthralled to be at UVA and can’t wait to tell you the reasons why, beginning, surprisingly, with Thomas Jefferson, whose lore is so powerfully woven into everyday UVA life that you practically expect to glimpse the man still walking the grounds in his waistcoat and pantaloons. Nearly every student I interviewed found a way to mention “TJ,” speaking with zeal about their founding father’s vision for an “academical village” in the idyllic setting of the Blue Ridge Mountains. They burble about UVA’s honor code, a solemn pledge not to lie, cheat or steal; students are expected to snitch on violators, who are expelled. UVA’s emphasis on honor is so pronounced that since 1998, 183 people have been expelled for honor-code violations such as cheating on exams. And yet paradoxically, not a single student at UVA has ever been expelled for sexual assault.
“Think about it,” says Susan Russell, whose UVA daughter’s sexual-assault report helped trigger a previous federal investigation. “In what world do you get kicked out for cheating, but if you rape someone, you can stay?”

Rape is a crime, and should be prosecuted. But as Erdely shows in this story, the campus culture at U-Va. is a big part of the problem, because it discourages students to see themselves as the victims of a crime.

Since Rolling Stone published Erdely’s story, various politicians and school administrators have made the expected noises about this being an intolerable situation and that something must be done. And let’s be clear, gang rapes are not about customs and manners, they’re precisely the acts that warrant legal intervention. But even in an area as egregious as this one, the conservative fears are justified. As Katie J.M. Baker notes in BuzzFeed, the quasi-legal procedures that colleges have put in place have done disservices to both accusers and accused (see also: Duke University men’s lacrosse team).

Maybe the answer is simply delegating these problems to proper law enforcement bodies, as I’ve suggested in this space in the past. But as the Rolling Stone story makes clear, fixing this problem at U-Va. will require a sea change in the college’s culture, and that is not going to be easy at all. For all the tut-tutting going on right now, it would not surprise me if U-Va. students soon start to resent the mass media attention and decry what they see as a distortion of what their school is like. Which means that they’ll resist changes to their customs and traditions.

It strikes me that the most immediate and obvious step U-Va. could take is to amend the university’s honor code so that it treats sexual assault as harshly as it does cheating. But tinkering with honor codes is only the first step of a much longer process of actually internalizing what constitutes bad behavior in a fraternity.

U-Va. is in the spotlight now because of the Rolling Stone story, but let’s not kid ourselves, this is a far more pervasive problem. Rape is a crime, so of course the legal system will be part and parcel of any solution. But I suspect an even bigger part of the solution is to change the mindset on college campuses about what constitutes acceptable behavior and what does not. And even horrific stories like this one will not trigger that change very quickly.