We have to stop acting surprised when we hear reports of Greek life “misconduct.” When we hear about demolished hotel rooms, pledges forced to swim in pools of shit, women degraded, sexually assaulted, raped and so on, we tend to react in what we think is the humane and moralistic way. We say: “My god, how could this happen? How terrible! How disgusting! Whoever did this harm ought to be punished! How could this have happened?”
But do we consider the assumptions and prejudices already at play in our supposedly moralistic reaction? Do we consider how our good liberal reaction to routine Greek life horrors actually supports the very organizations and acts that we think we’re opposing and denouncing?
Whenever we speak about Greek life “misconduct,” we have to put the “misconduct” in quotes. In the face of the regularity of the “misconduct” (hazing, violence, sexual assault, etc.), one can no longer seriously claim that these events are out of the ordinary for Greek life. But, when we react to these horrors as if they were scandals, as the Greek life organizations, universities and the media say they are, we’re implying that they are out of the ordinary; that these events deviate from the normal functioning of the Greek life system; and that Greek life as a whole (that is, Greek life as an institution and system) is innocent. These horrors seem to occur so regularly that, ironically, the true scandal for Greek life would be if one weekend there were no binge drinking, violence, hazing or rape. The lack of “misconduct” would constitute a true Greek life scandal.
We should acknowledge that we don’t spontaneously, automatically or naturally perceive these events as scandals. Rather, the mainstream media and the leaders of the relevant institutions (namely, the national fraternity and sorority organizations as well as the colleges and universities) mold our perception of these events and, consequently, our perception of Greek life. These leaders frame the “scandals” or “misconduct” as such, placing blame on just one chapter, a few members or even just specific actions, thus attempting to alienate the “misconduct” from the organization and institution, and effectively denying that the organization, the institution and the system as a whole bear responsibility.
By scandalizing the horrific byproducts of their system (using the word “byproduct,” too, is a kind of scandalizing, as is using militaristic phrases like “collateral damage”) the leaders of national Greek organizations and the heads of universities and colleges protect their institution against what should be the obvious criticism; the routine reports of “misconduct” reflect something rotten in the state of Greek life. This allows Greek life to survive relatively unchanged.
Furthermore, by accepting and mimicking the jejune or else outright phony shock and surprise of the heads of these organizations, the rest of us wrongfully scandalize these horrific events as well, making us tacitly complicit in future wrongdoing by abiding this corrupt system. Hence, many of the supposed critics of Greek life unintentionally perpetuate the very actions they initially sought to oppose and denounce.
We all know — that is, anyone even remotely familiar with today’s Greek life knows — that the horrors we read about in the newspapers constitute only a small fraction of the total “misconduct.” Aren’t we all aware that the prohibitions against certain “misconduct” in Greek life are a joke? Don’t we know that within the prohibitions against, say, hazing, is the expectation that the prohibition will be violated?
It insults the intelligence of the public when Greek life and university spokespeople react with their phony shock and surprise at the most recent hazing “scandal” or whatever. They know fully well that hazing goes on; it’s this false surprise on the part of the organizational leaders in response to the incriminating reports that allows the hazing to continue.
A major step forward for the reformation of Greek life would be if, in response to the next report of University-affiliated Greek life misconduct, University President Mark Schlissel stood on his podium, shrugged his shoulders and just said, “Yep, this is how Greek life works.”
This, I claim, would be the truly compassionate and progressive response: not pretending that the plight of these victims (e.g., the victims of hazing, sexual assault, etc.) is out of the ordinary; not pretending that it’s shocking or surprising that this happened to them; and not pretending that we don’t know that this supposed “misconduct” really happens all the time and that these horrors occur because of the normal functioning of the Greek life system.
For example, we all knew that when the University Greek life chapters left for their “ski trip” they brought gallons of alcohol and ounces of drugs with them (referring more so to hard drugs, not marijuana, which I believe, if used without alcohol, might have actually prevented the extensive property damage). Though it’s not every year that Greek life at the University causes more than $80,000 worth of damage to a hotel, most of the underlying causes of that destruction, like binge drinking to the point of belligerence, do happen every year — indeed, every week.
What’s most disturbing about resort-gate is not the damage to property alone: it’s what the destruction of property signifies.
Compare this instance with the extensive destruction of property that took place during the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, following the grand jury’s failure to indict Officer Wilson for the killing of unarmed Black teen Mike Brown. How did we react to the destruction of property in Ferguson?
For many of us it almost constituted reason to denounce the protest as a whole. Some Conservatives even used the looting and rioting to argue racist or racialist claims, like, “This just goes to show that these people (Black people) can’t be trusted; they deserve their lowly lot in life; we need more and stricter policing, not less,” etc.
And what about the “ski trip”? Why not conclude that these people cannot be trusted? Why not more policing for them? Shouldn’t we be more afraid of rich, white frat brothers than of poor, Black urbanites? Rich, white Greeks feel they are invincible and cause $80,000+ worth of property damage without even trying.
The protesters in Ferguson who destroyed property did so deliberately. What’s more, these riots, even if one disagrees with them as a political tactic, were at least partly redeemable because they were founded on legitimate discontent (economic, political, social and otherwise).
The carelessness, ease and nonchalance with which the Greeks on “ski trip” destroyed $80,000+ worth of property scares me far more than the deliberate destruction of property in Ferguson. There is no purpose — political or otherwise — and hence no excuse for the Greeks’ destruction of property. The sheer nihilism and cynicism of it, and the nihilism and cynicism throughout Greek life that it exemplifies, is what scares me — scares me far more than, say, the Ferguson riots did.
But — and this may seem counterintuitive given my writing about it — I claim that we need not worry too much about Greek life. The institution cannot survive for long in its current form (friends of mine in fraternities tell me pledging will basically be over within 10 years). Greek life depends on high levels of organizational secrecy in order to function, much like big corporations do. As we move further into the age of social media and smartphones, Greek life’s organizational secrecy will become increasingly difficult to maintain.
Its first enemy is itself. I’m not afraid of generalizing the Greeks as a bunch of drunk idiots. As drunk idiots who (when drunk) don’t understand the necessity of secrecy for their institution’s survival, they expose and incriminate themselves and bring themselves closer to their own destruction.
There’s a video — we’ve all seen it — shot on a cellphone camera by an anonymous Pike brother, showing a drunk woman giving the brother a blowjob as he asks her, “What’s the best fraternity at MSU?” She says, “Pike.” What did we learn from this video? Ironically, that, by any and all standards, Pike is definitely not the best fraternity at MSU. Not just because the girl, being drunk, could not legally give consent, but that this brother violated the highest imperative for a “good” fraternity in our era: secrecy.
A “good” fraternity, by which I mean a fraternity with a good chance of survival, is one that does all the normal frat stuff (disrespects women, sexually assaults them, etc.), but does so in secrecy. The Greeks, it seems, are having difficulty accepting the fact that our world no longer accepts such violence, misogyny and sexism. The Pike video, I claim, exemplifies the reason why the ideology of Greek life will be Greek life’s own ultimate destruction. Greek life cannot reconcile its need for secrecy with its own stupidity (brought on largely by routine alcoholic stupor). So, while we should continue to resist Greek life and advocate for its reform, we should not be too concerned, because, in the long term, Greek life will likely destroy itself.
Now — and, again, this will seem somewhat surprising to my reader — I am not totally opposed to Greek life. To clarify, I’m not condemning or accusing every chapter or every Greek of rape, hazing, etc.; I’m condemning the institution that systematically produces these horrors. I have many friends in Greek life and they tell me — and I’ve also seen it for myself — that the institution is not all bad.
When we talk about Greek life, we have to make certain abstractions and generalizations, and, in doing so, I fear that we may too readily dismiss the genuinely good elements of this institution — such as friendship — and the genuinely good experiences of many of the Greeks. Nonetheless, like a pledge puking into a toilet, there’s no question Greek Life is sick: it’s a question of how sick it is and what it’s sick with. I advocate for reform and resistance to Greek life while also knowing that the system is already on a trajectory toward its own destruction.
Zak Witus can be reached at email@example.com.