Letter to the editor

Viral emails need attention


On March 8, several friends and I learned about what’s now known as the “Kappa Sigma email.”

We were appalled and frustrated by the administration’s decision to await Kappa Sigma’s own internal investigation before taking action.

Moreover, we were frustrated by what we see as a culture of misogyny, not just at USC, but nationwide.

The following morning, when I mentioned the email in my class, a female student asked if she was “wrong” for finding the email funny.

What could I possibly say? My fellow graduate students have similar stories emblematic of a culture that internalizes many of the ideas expressed in the email, and in response, the eight of us drafted a letter voicing our concerns, which is available online.

The university administration has thus far responded with its own open letter. I sincerely hope this dialogue continues, but the scope of my concern, and indeed the issue at hand, is much broader.

The email is central, but we must not become mired in details. We can argue whether enough is being done to identify the email’s author and those who distributed it, or if finding them is even possible.

But if they are found, what then? Have they committed a crime? Violated a code of conduct? Are they protected by the First Amendment? These are important questions but they can potentially distract us from the real problem: a culture of objectification and violence toward women. Focusing on scapegoats allows larger issues to remain ignored.

This is not an indictment of fraternity members, or USC specifically, but a reality of our contemporary culture.

When an individual claiming to represent a fraternity distributes this kind of email, it’s an outrage and possibly a punishable offense.

When Tucker Max advocates these same ideas, it’s accepted as entertainment. But we must not pass blame around until it fades altogether, or throw our hands up in despair.

We need to understand the cultural forces producing misogyny and violence in order to change them.

I hope the author is found, but if online comment threads are an indication, any number of young men could have composed the same email.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that this email has stirred up controversy, and I hope the administration seizes this opportunity for dialogue and education.

If this has taught us nothing else, it’s what we do and say here resonates beyond our campus; and we should use the national attention to turn the tide against misogyny and sexual violence at USC and in the culture at large.

Thomas winningham

Ph.D. student, English

11 replies
  1. Thomas
    Thomas says:

    The University policies don’t need to be changed or rewritten in any way. Nor does one need any legal experience to look up the current code of conduct for both graduate and undergraduate students. The code clearly states the kinds of views expressed in the Kappa Sig email are at best questionable and at worst reasons for dismissal from the university. I quote Section 11, Article 44:

    “A. Engaging in disorderly conduct or lewd, indecent or obscene behavior in the university community or at university-sponsored activities.

    B. Encouraging or permitting others to engage in misconduct prohibited within the university community. Failing to confront and prevent the misconduct, notify an appropriate university official of the misconduct, or remove oneself from the situation.”

    And as a Writing 140 instructor it pains me to see, from several of these comments, that logical fallacies do indeed rule the day–particularly of the ad hominen variety. But as Stephen pointed out earlier, this completely misses the point. This is not a witch hunt for a particular student by any means, nor an attempt to silence intelligent and critical dialogue, but instead an opportunity to create a safer, more respectful environment on campus.

    • Anonymous
      Anonymous says:

      “This is not a witch hunt . . . nor an attempt to silence intelligent and critical dialogue, but instead an opportunity to create a safer, more respectful environment on campus.”

      And how would this be achieved except by silencing someone or forcing them to change their beliefs about a subject? Nice job with the logical fallacies….

      • Stephen
        Stephen says:

        Are you suggesting that someone that endorses such an e-mail shouldn’t have his or her mind changed? Misogyny and racism are somehow legitimate, just other points of view? As if this dialogue should consist of people like Mr. Winningham vs. the misogynists? We shouldn’t apologize for taking a stance against prejudice just because it’s legally protected. This sort of language reflects and reproduces a culture that needs to be interrogated. Again, finding the guilty party is of little use. The problem is systemic and needs to be brought to the fore so that we don’t allow such forms of prejudice to pass as benign. The point is not to change an individual’s mind. It’s to help foster the conditions that would prevent the production of such an e-mail.

  2. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    I’m still not clear on how anyone could read the e-mail as “sarcastic.” There’s no hint of irony in the e-mail.

  3. Suni Ellis
    Suni Ellis says:

    What ‘actions’ can or should the University take, or any authoritative body for that matter?

    Will University policy changes, SCAMPUS re-writings, and mandates to attend sexual violence seminars really help make us feel like we’re doing something to solve the problem? Is this truly a problem to be solved by University officials lanyway – so that we can all feel like we’ve done aomething to react? And if we find the guy who wrote the email and ruin his life – will we feel vindicated and happy?

    Suni Ellis

  4. Langston
    Langston says:

    “anonymous femal blogger” is demonstrating some of the key problems with USC undergrads: overuse of logical fallacies, weak critical reasoning skills, a devastatingly naive desire to believe that concepts like “sarcasm” (a term s/he clearly doesn’t understand) somehow excuse active hate speech. Sorry, kid, your innocence is touching, but your misplaced aggression towards Winningham’s well-written and thoughtful letter is just plain annoying. Go read a book.

    • anonymous femal blogger
      anonymous femal blogger says:

      Langston is demonstrating some of the key problems with some grad students: unwarranted pompousness and patronizing attitude.

      If I may give you a piece of advice when it comes to argumentation skills: it is good to substantiate your argument — something your patronizing comment fails to do entirely. Where are the logical fallacies? On what basis do you assess weak critical reasoning skills?

      One of the problems with you people is that you call for dialogue, yet shut out anyone who disagrees with you. The fact that the vast majority of people on this campus understand that the email was sarcastic, and the fact that all of you are not only refusing to acknowledge that factr but are taking this as proof of the “history of sexual violence at USC” (a concept unsupported by any data), its not a testament to undergrads’ innocence. It is, rather, proof that what you consider to be “dialogue” is in fact a monologue, albeit one sung by a choir.

      • Langston
        Langston says:

        When you come up with a reasonable argument against the very plain and obvious fact that the email constitutes hate speech – and no, “it was sarcastic” does not even begin to constitute an argument – then maybe we can talk about the crazy amount of assumptions you’re bringing to the table. How do you know I’m a grad student and not a fellow undergrad, or just an interested observer? Did some TA give you a grade that hurt your feelings? Maybe having to do with your problems spelling?

        As a “femal” you have a responsibility to take the problems of rape culture seriously. If you do not, you’re part of the problem. End of story. If you honestly don’t believe that this email is part of that problematic culture, then I think you might want to sign up for a class on feminism – I’m sure they’re taught by full professors, not scary grad students.

  5. Stephen
    Stephen says:

    “anonymous femal blogger” ignores Mr. Winningham’s argument. Whether the offense is punishable is precisely not the point. Some have defended the student’s first amendment rights. This, too, is besides the point. Legality does not necessarily correlate with ethics. What this article rightly calls for is an approach that does not simply seek out the individual who wrote the e-mail as the source, but instead works toward understanding the social conditions that make such an e-mail possible.

    The e-mail is far from sarcastic. There is no reason to believe the author used such language to convey contempt for misogyny. Sure, the e-mail is hyperbolic–though a very dangerous form of hyperbole, one that alleges a distinction between rape and non-consent. This stuff is only funny if we can find some cognitive dissonance and disconnect its words from discrimination against women and real acts of sexual violence. Such dissonance is wildly irresponsible and dangerous.

    Lastly, I see no hint of judgment here. We, too, are part of a culture that takes such rhetoric as good fun, as part of a sort of sport. Why is this e-mail so offensive? Because we recognize its contents. They are familiar to us. They speak to a culture we’ve all seen or felt on or around our campus and elsewhere.

  6. anonymous femal blogger
    anonymous femal blogger says:

    What kind of punishable offense is it, exactly, Tom? Since when does your PhD studentness make you a legal expert, or an expert on morals for that matter?

    And what did you answer your student? That because you put yourself on a pedestal of moral virtuousness you have created for yourself, she is indeed wrong? Did it occur to you that TAs like yourself who decide they somehow have the moral standing to judge everyone else, actually are the people creating a hostile environment in the classroom, by denying alleged offenders due process and by deriding and patronizing students who happen to disagree with your take? And did you forget that sarcasm is a cherished and time-revered form of expression in the English language?

    From your behavior, and that of the minority of grad students who side with you, it looks like you’re the one in need of attention, not the viral email.

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