Tom Wolfe set his 2004 novel, I Am Charlotte Simmons, in the fictional Dupont University. Many, me among them, saw the school as a thinly veiled depiction of Duke University. Simmons, a small town girl unprepared for the social psychological nexus of wealth/power/sex/class/race into which she plunged herself, spent a hellacious year being abused in every imaginable way before exacting revenge (of a sort) by landing a basketball star.
I couldn't help thinking of Charlotte when I first heard the story of the lacrosse team rape charges coming out of Durham, NC. In the novel, Wolfe demonstrates the amazing, often mystifying power of culture to shape the behavior of individuals, sometimes in ways radically at odds with their typical patterns.
Culture is the unified network of unspoken beliefs, values, norms, and goals that gives groups their often distinctive characters. "Strong" cultures stand out because their social systems are governed by unique combinations of rules. Think: US Marine Corps or religious fundamentalism. Membership in these (often highly coveted) groups present high barriers to entry, complex certification processes, and high levels of intra-group concurrence. "Groupthink" is a defining quality of strong cultures.
Recently, we've seen Enron emerge as a perfect example of a strong culture. Ken Lay and Jeff Skilling apparently led Enron by developing a culture focused on delivering quarterly bottom line results at all costs. If you watch the excellent film, The Smartest Guys In The Room, it is quickly apparent that the culture took over and spiraled out of control; perhaps even more so than Lay and Skilling could even have imagined.
Of course, culture doesn't eliminate individual responsibility. Each of us acts in certain ways, or doesn't, and is responsible as such. But culture powerfully influences those actions. I remember as a youngster being warned about succumbing to "peer pressures" (a lot of good those warnings did!). When we grow up, however, we think we've moved beyond those adolescent forces. Don't believe it. Our behavior is always more malleable to context than we'd like to think.
And so, here we have 40 intelligent young male student athletes attending a fine university. Lacrosse is a tough, physical sport, played mostly in well-to-do Northeast high schools and prep schools. Lacrosse team cultures are often described as "rowdy." In Charlotte Simmons, Wolfe puts the following lines about the sport's charisma at Dupont into the mouth of an effete (and envious) intellectual male:
"Lacrosse is one of the only two sports where white boys are the ones with machismo. The other one's ice hockey. Basketball is totally a black sport. Football is mostly a black sport. It's just not as obvious in football, because the uniforms cover up their bodies and they wear face masks. Lacrosse would be all black too, like that" - he snapped his fingers - "if black teenagers ever started playing it..."
A culture of machismo, racial division, money and class. Black strippers invited to "dance" at the lacrosse team's off campus house. How can anyone be surprised at the outcome?
Like Enron and fundamentalism, Duke's lacrosse culture reaped what it sowed.