I didn’t know George Desdunes, though now I wish I’d had the privilege. He was a friend of acquaintances who sent out emails in March to lists of people who might want to know he had died and to provide details about his funeral. Those emails were among many others I barely noticed at the time. This afternoon I ran across those emails again while looking for something else, and I became curious. The emails said nothing about who he was and why he died, so I looked him up.
Turns out George was a nineteen-year old sophomore at Cornell when he died during a fraternity hazing event. The university has since rescinded recognition of the fraternity, and George’s mother has sued the fraternity for $25 million, naming twenty fraternity members in the lawsuit. According to that last story, in The Cornell Daily Sun,
Desdunes participated in a mock kidnapping before his death, court documents state. He and another SAE brother were taken to the townhouse apartments on North Campus by several pledge members, and they had their hands and feet tied with zip ties and duct tape. The two were quizzed about “fraternity information and lore,” and when they answered incorrectly they did exercises or were given drinks, such as flavored syrup or vodka, the documents state.
After his death, authorities discovered Desdunes’ blood alcohol level was 0.35, according to court documents related to the criminal charges. However, Andres’ lawsuit states that her son’s blood alcohol level was 0.409. By comparison, the legal limit to drive in New York State is 0.08.
By all accounts (here’s one) George was the kind of kid anybody would like to have as a son, a friend, a mentor: smart, caring, friendly, a good student and athlete… the list goes on. (My second-degree acquaintance with him comes through the camp he attended for a number of years before serving as a counsellor in the last summer of his life.)
One reason I went to a college without fraternities was that I had already endured enough hazing at the boarding school I attended as a teenager. While I know fraternities can be a lot of fun, and that they yield lifelong friendships and support networks, I also believe they formalize social exclusion and (in some cases) cruelty rationalized by tradition.
All I said in the last sentence is arguable, of course; but that’s not what I’m after here.
What I’m after is remembering something more than the story of a young man who died for no good reason (plus a number of bad ones). What I want us to remember is the moral philosophy of Kurt Vonnegut, the author and soldier who survived the bombing of Dresden as a prisoner of War during WWII (and whose forced labor required pulling burned bodies from the smoking rubble). Vonnegut summarized that philosophy in just two words: “be kind.”*
Being kind is not at the core of most academic curricula at the college level, much less of fraternity hazing ceremonies. But among our many contradictory human natures, no moral imperative is more essential to our well being, and to the persistence of all that is good in the world.
Kindness is a grace without which George would not have become the good guy he was. That he died for lack of it is less important than what he had of it, and what the rest of us still need to enjoy, and to practice.
* Kurt Vonnegut’s full dictum (from God Bless You Mister Rosewater, his funniest book) is “There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.” Elsewhere, however, he boils it down to those last two words.