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Sunday, November 04, 2007



Here's a most interesting HBO documentary, Frat House by name, involving two intrepid reporters who went undercover (or at least, got very persuasive) to observe secret hazing rituals in some American fraternity houses. Though the documentary is basically footage of hazing with not much analysis, it's very striking, in a startling sort of way. I guess we'd better do the analysis ourselves, eh guys? :-)

This stuff is new to me. We don't have fraternities in the UK. I studied in Cambridge, where there's a collegiate system, but it's a very different business: colleges are almost all co-ed with a couple of all-female ones, first years are generally put in one big building physically similar to a frat house but with less free partying space and, crucially, more or less randomly assigned distribution. Girls share a corridor and bathroom with girls, boys with boys, but you don't get to pick who you live with until the second year. The result is that many people simply make friends with their next-door neighbours, others make friends with people a few staircases away, or from other colleges if they feel like a walk, and the sense of group identity is far looser. There were a few all-college parties per year (agreeably referred to as 'bops'), which you could join if you felt like it, but most of our shared activities were hobbyish things like sports teams and amateur dramatics.

The result was that we had boys not unlike the frat house types the documentary shows, but they were far less aggressive. Referred to as 'boaties', because they tended to be on the rowing teams, you'd usually see them in the bar, and you'd definitely hear them. But though they occasionally broke windows or got into fights, there was a major difference. As with the hazing, there was an element of doing stupid things to prove oneself - drinking a pint glass of baked beans was a favourite - but these things were voluntary. They weren't imposed hierarchically, backed up with the threat of social expulsion if you didn't do them; you could make your mates laugh and tell everyone what a top bloke you were if you felt like drinking a pint of beans, but it was much more along the lines of 'Hey, guys, watch me do this!' than 'Do this at once, bitch!'. If you wanted to do something silly, you had to come up with it yourself, or at most, be dared by your friends, who'd still hang out with you if you told them where to stick their suggestion.

The interesting thing about the frat house boys is that they're using a kind of aggression that, for all its machismo, is traditionally female. I've mentioned the book Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons before, and one of the things it discusses is the use of 'relational aggression' and 'social aggression' by teenage girls. Do what I want or I won't be your friend; do what I want or you'll lose your standing in the group. These hazers are doing physical violence to their victims - very similar to the Stanford prison experiment 'guards', in fact, which Smashing Telly also provides a documentary about - but it's backed up with social aggression. If it wasn't, it wouldn't work. When I saw the first minute of the documentary, with the fraternity 'king' hard-selling the fraternity to a new pledge who'd already said he wanted to join, my first thought was that the guy was a wannabe, a strutting little bantam whose pretensions to greatness were more clownish than impressive. I was actually laughing and thinking, 'What a wanker!', more amused than concerned. But, the thing is, people actually did what the boy said. He was powerful, because other people let him be. Now, he was just one person, probably fairly strong but certainly not strong enough to win a fight if two or more pledges had decided 'Sod this for a game of soliders, let's give him the kicking he's asking for,' - but they didn't do it. Why? Social aggression, the real aggression at play. The real threat wasn't violence. The victims had a choice: they could take the abuse, or they could be refused friendship and rendered social outcasts.

And if we accept that girls are influenced when someone says 'Do this or I won't be your friend,' why should we consider boys to be different? This isn't a gendered response, it's a human one: everyone wants to be liked and respected. It's just girls who are traditionally expected to exploit it. Boys tend to say 'You're not a real man' rather than 'I don't like you', but that's simply because manhood is a sore point with boys in the same way that being lovable is a sore point with girls: it's going after someone's most vulnerable desire in order to wield power over them.

What I wonder is this: how compulsory are fraternities? Do you have to join one? Where do you live if you don't? Are there any fraternities founded on the principle of 'Don't Be an Asshole' that actively reject hazing? (You'd think there'd be a demand. You could even call it Delta Beta Alpha, to remind everyone of the motto.) And, other than the inertia of tradition, why on earth are they tolerated at all?

For one thing, the hazing behaviour is out-and-out criminal - I mean, street gangs haze less than those guys, and if those boys had been black and urban, they'd all have been in jail before you could blink. Unless TV has lied to me, and why would it do that, I gather that if you want to be a proper gangster, all that happens is that your recruiting brothers punch and stomp on you for a few minutes, a painful experience but far less prolonged than a ten-week non-stop hazing. The reason, I think, is simply that the fraternities, having no intention of actually studying, don't have much to do. A gangster can make himself useful: he can get out there and start making money selling drugs, skirmish with rival gangs, watch out for the police. You don't want to mess around for ten weeks when there's work to do: you just give him a hiding and set him to work. Fraternities, lacking any useful activity, have extended the ritual to ridiculous length. The Slacktivist blog (highly recommended), quotes here a remark by G.K. Chesterton:

"There comes a time in the late afternoon, when the children tire of their games," G.K. Chesterton wrote. "It is then that they turn to torturing the cat."

It is late afternoon in America, and tired at last of our meaningless games, we're looking for a new source of excitement.

Those boys, among other things, are suffering from boredom.

Another element seems to be the desire boys have to belong, not just to have friends but to be a band of brothers, united against all odds. Fundamentally it's an honourable desire, but the fraternity system runs hard up against the fact that the odds, if you're a white middle-class undergraduate, are pretty sweet. There isn't much conflict to unite against, and so the fraternities are forced to create artificially bad odds, to stir up trouble in order to deal with it. If they want war stories - and they clearly, badly do - they have to start the war themselves. And the easiest people to attack are those who want something from them badly enough to put up with it. I fear for any outsiders who even mildly irritate such people; they're clearly spoiling for a fight.

I fear particularly for girls on campus. Our friend at Smashing Telly remarks 'One of the things I have noticed about aggressively macho environments is how spectacularly unsuccessful they are at attracting women ... and yet these people considered themselves successful in terms of their sexual prowess, rather like builders who whistle at passing skirts with zero chance of reciprocated approval.' Alas for my sex, though, those boys do seem to get laid - the nasty frat ruler can be seen courting a girl who'll almost certainly sleep with him (or let him 'kill' her, as he charmingly puts it), purely by acting as if he's a star who'll improve her status by noticing her, even though he rudely puts her down, boasting that he's never heard of her to her face. (Where's Lysistrata when you need her?) But those boys look very much like rapists. A lot of the hard-sell is in assuring pledges that they'll get lots of girls once they're fraternity members. They don't seem to have consulted the actual girls before making this promise, but show me a boy who's gone through ten weeks of torture on the promise it'll get him something he wants, and I'll show you a boy who's not going to be too happy if somebody won't give it to him. On one level, it may not be as bad as I fear - they seem far more interested in impressing other boys with their sexual dominance than in impressing girls, and boys can always be lied to (any teenage boys reading this, no, your mate who tells you he can have sex six times a night and had three girls last week is probably not telling you the truth, and you're not a wimp because you can't and didn't. He's all talk.) But presented with a temptation, I worry that many boys will end up thinking, 'What does she mean "no"? I've earned this!'

And why, if we're asking questions, does a secular/Christian country encourage behaviour that's so intensely cultic? Secret rituals, lifelong membership, weird devotion to the exclusion of all else: it's like having universities run by the Freemasons. Not to mention the fact that it's an inefficent way to run an academic institution: ten weeks of hazing, so severe that the pledges are almost certainly unable to study to any effect, is a massive chunk of the academic year, and those kids' parents are paying a few thousand dollars for time in which the kids are doing no work beyond press-ups and drinking Tabasco. It's a waste of money - but what it does clearly produce is a form of Stockholm syndrome. I've heard various pundits defend the horrible abuses at Abu Ghraib as not that different from fraternity hazing, and that's a scary thought - because if you did that stuff in prison, you'd have Amnesty International after your sorry ass. What's the betting those pundits got hazed themselves, and have to believe that it wasn't that bad in order not to feel upset that their so-called friends tortured them for no reason? If fraternities are institutionalising a casual attitude to torture, they should all be shut down tomorrow.

Are they all this bad? Are they as socially powerful on campus as they claim? Boaties in Cambridge tended to be amiably tolerated but laughed at a lot. They were noisier than other groups but no more threatening; their clear priority was to have fun in a hearty sort of way, but they had no frat-style sense of being an elite group that ruled itself like a kingdom and could do anything it wanted. The worst thing you could say about them, really, was that they could be inconsiderate. Hence, while they'd occasionally set off fire extinguishers or moon people, they very seldom did anything actually menacing. The one time I witnessed one of them cussing out an authority figure, it was rare enough that the college magazine mentioned it (amusedly). They also didn't generally get angry with fellow students who denied them stuff, or at least, no more than anybody else did. Once, for instance, one of them decided to flash me and a couple of other girls; when I saw him reaching inside his fly, I took exception, swivelled and side-kicked towards his groin. (I didn't connect; it was the inept-karate equivalent of a warning shot.) And what happened? He zipped up and walked away. He didn't swear at me, his friends didn't call me names; if anything, they considered the joke on him. I somehow doubt frat boys would take it in such good part. But am I wrong? What's going on?

how compulsory are fraternities? Do you have to join one? Where do you live if you don't? Are there any fraternities founded on the principle of 'Don't Be an Asshole' that actively reject hazing? (You'd think there'd be a demand. You could even call it Delta Beta Alpha, to remind everyone of the motto.) And, other than the inertia of tradition, why on earth are they tolerated at all?

Fraternities are entirely voluntary: you have to be chosen to join one, and they have dues (often quite expensive), so most very poor students can't afford to be in one.

If you don't live in a fraternity or sorority, you live in campus housing (dormitories, much like your own experience) or in an apartment off campus. Or at home, if you are from the neighborhood.

Many fraternities, especially the newer ones and the coed ones, do not allow hazing or have very strict guidelines. Most universities have specific hazing policies, although secrecy among the participants can make that hard to enforce. Fraternities can be kicked off campus (not allowed to recruit or hold meetings on a campus) for violations.

Fraternities are tolerated at all because they are Tradition. They are a place for students to form social networks that will stay with them professionally, and to meet The Right People. And in theory they do a lot of volunteer work, though it's never been clear to me why you can't do volunteer work on your own.
Social networks that will stay with them professionally doesn't sound very democratic to me, not if poor students can't afford their dues. Seems like it would inhibit social mobility if all the best jobs are reserved for former brothers.
It's interesting to see an outside perspective on fraternities. I didn't know England didn't have them, but I'd never really thought about it.
Frats, actually, are not mandatory, or even connected to the universities. There is a nation-wide "Greek System" and different frats have chapters at various universities, but they are not generally endorsed by the universities. Different universities handle frats differently; I know some universities have frat houses on campus while others don't. I think some universities actually ban frats altogether, though I'm not sure. The university I went to allows frats (the houses are all off-campus) but does try to regulate them. One particular frat was disbanded my sophomore year for hazing.
Frats (and sororities, too) are a small part of university life. Some students rush, but many don't. Students who don't do the Greek thing don't really miss out on anything. Everyone lives in university housing their first year anyway. Depending on the university, students may live in university housing all four years. The university I went to was impacted though, and mostly only freshmen live in campus housing. Other students live in apartments and houses in the town next to campus.
So... I hope that answers your question...
The "social aggression" aspect is interesting. Something I wouldn't have noticed, yet it is true.
I think that fraternities are about as far as you can get from true democratic society as possible. They are all about privilege and entrenched power structures. I would guess they were designed that way, to make up for our lack of an aristocracy in keeping the riff-raff out of the power structure.

When you hear Americans refer to an "old boy's club," you may assume that a fraternity figured in the early years of such a club.
The very first fraternity (founded 1776 at the College of William and Mary) is the only fraternity of which I am a member, Phi Beta Kappa. Phi Beta Kappa stands for 'philosophia biou kubernetes,' Greek for 'love of learning is the guide of life.' It was a secret society because it had to be. It was founded so that the students could get together and debate issues, which they were not allowed to do in the colleges at that time.

It spread to Yale, Harvard, and Dartmouth where it developed into what it is today, a liberal arts honors society which recognizes scholastic achievement and not any sort of social organization. (Today, Phi Beta Kappa recognizes only juniors and seniors who are on their way to graduate in the top x% (10, I think?) at a university or college where they have a chapter. They only recognize those who have received a broad liberal arts education and have rules to this effect, e.g. demonstrated proficiency in a foreign language and mathematics. There are many, many honors fraternities in America now, but Phi Beta Kappa is still the gold standard.)

In the late 19th century, purely social fraternities came into being, modeling themselves after Phi Beta Kappa, but obviously not its academic exclusivity.

To allay some of your fears, fraternities are virtually powerless on almost all college campuses and I would hardly say that they are encouraged. (Most colleges pretend they don't exist and have only very minor policies concerning them. Those policies are almost entirely disciplinary in nature. The college can revoke a fraternity's charter for bad behavior.)

The social network certainly exists, but it is no different in character or influence from any other social network (like the kind you or I might have). No fraternity in America has social clout even remotely resembling the kind the Masons still have to this day in England. (But don't have in America. My grandfather was a 32nd degree Mason here in the States and a Past Master of the Lodge for the entire state. Nevertheless, he still died a fairly poor man.)

In a big state school, you'd never know the frats were there. People who join typically pay their dues in order to get the free beer at the parties. I think it's similar at smaller colleges, though I can't be sure there aren't a few here or there where a particular fraternity might not have some clout (if its members include a significant amount of the population).

There are good sides to fraternities as well. Most of them do a lot of charity work, for example. In fact, there are fraternities where that is almost their entire charter. There are also non-selective academic fraternities which will, for example, admit anyone who is interested in engineering to help the engineers meet each other and build their social network.

By the way, "Frat House" lied to you. The 'pledges' who appear were already members of the fraternity; the chapter was paid $1500 to film the events, and members were paid to 're-enact' things that supposedly happened. It was a clumsy fraud and was noticed because the film was shot in the spring, but Muhlenberg College did not rush during the spring. The documentary makers claim the film is accurate, but cannot refute the fact that the College did not rush then. (The documentary maker has also argued, while not admitting staging, that staging re-enactments is a technique used by well-known documentarians like Nick Broomfield and Michael Moore.)

The frat in question, Alpha Tau Omega, has since been banned from Muhlenberg.
Oh, due to concerns about its accuracy, HBO never aired the documentary. For a complete account, see here.
Thanks for the link, very interesting. Colour me uncertain. I wish everyone just told the truth...

And thanks for the history lesson as well! I feel much better informed. :-)

To pick up on one thing you said, though:

fraternities are virtually powerless on almost all college campuses and I would hardly say that they are encouraged. (Most colleges pretend they don't exist and have only very minor policies concerning them. Those policies are almost entirely disciplinary in nature. The college can revoke a fraternity's charter for bad behavior.)

I'd say that a structure that was interested in ruling itself as much as possible would be rendered more powerful by authorities who'd 'pretend they don't exist' rather than monitoring them. I just wonder whether that might lead to an element of blind-eye-turning to certain infractions, and wonder just how bad the behaviour has to be before it's considered major enough to close the house. I'm thinking of the documentary Raw Deal, which you can check out here:


- whose accuracy is not, as far as I know, disputed, and includes an in-depth interview with at least one frat member and shorter ones from several others. In that, where an alleged rape took place, even people who don't think it was rape acknowledge that the fraternity brothers were treated with a let's-keep-this-between-us caution very different from the suspicion that greeted the alleged victim. The hazing elements were less drastic, as far as could be seen (though the boys had the sense not to film them), but there was a rather worrying air of prioritising 'brothers' over other people in a way that seemed incompatible with safety. It was an ethos more than a policy, but it led to a major allegation being handled incompetently, in that case at least.

Then again, fraternities based on academic excellence and charity work seem like a great idea.
Fraternities and Sororities are very expensive to get into, and have yearly dues, as well as compulsory social events that are expensive. Moreover, they tie up so much of your free time doing stuff for the club, either charity work or social events, that you can't both have a part-time job and be in a frat. Not if you want to study! Therefore, it is the rich kids who are in them. (And of course, I'm talking social frats, not academic ones.) At my school (a large state school in the midwest) about 10 percent of the kids were in the frat/sor system. The rest of us used to joke: "Join a sorority, buy a friend."

But it is totally an old boys/old girls network. Frat boys who graduate are referred to frat alumni for job interviews, and if your dad or uncle was in the frat, you are considered a "legacy" and almost guaranteed to get in.

But here's another reason I'd never join: I am an introvert. With such an intense social schedule (3 or 4 nights a week) it really only appeals to extroverts anyway. As far as the hazing goes, it works because extroverts really care what other people think of them. A lot.
I'd never join a fraternity either (nor would about 90% of the population), however hazing is practically extinct at American fraternities or very mild. It is my belief that the filmmakers pretty much made up everything in that "documentary." (I watched the beginning of it, and the voiceover is a laugh riot.) Even when hazing existed, it was really never that severe.
Sorry, Ms. Whitfield, I missed your comment when I wrote that last one. I believe there are always going to be problems when young men (who commit an enormous majority of all crimes) congregate together, be it in fraternities, inner city gangs, in or around sports teams, or, for that matter, academic clubs. (I was a juvenile delinquent myself in my adolescence due to a troubled childhood. Fortunately, I always read a lot so I had an escape hatch when I grew up.) There is something to be said for banning all such associations altogether or at least forcing them to be co-educational. You can call me sexist or anti-feminist, though I would disagree with either judgment, but it is my firm opinion that women civilize men. Hobbes was incorrect; the human species has never lived in a "war of all against all," but if we removed women from the equation, men alone might very well do. Very strident feminists are often criticized, but I think they're on to something when they remark that most women don't understand how much men hate them. As long as we qualified this to young (as yet) uncivilized men with hormones way out of control, I would very much concur with this judgment. The greatest shame I bear to this day is the way I treated many women in my younger days: I was frequently cold, callous, and inhuman and, unfortunately, I had the charisma and intelligence to get away with it.

When I said that colleges ignore fraternities, I did not mean they were unregulated. When I was at University, we had quite a tragedy when a fraternity brother actually died of alcohol poisoning during a fraternity party (not hazing, by the way). The fraternity was disbanded and expelled from campus. I don't believe that fraternities are under-punished in general. If anything, because of their quasi-official status, they probably attract more attention and more punishment than similar behavior by an informal social clique would for the same offense. (College athletes face a similar situation.)

I'm no apologist for fraternities. I'd be just as happy if they all disappeared tomorrow. I'm just in favor of balance and accuracy in our judgments. Some fraternities misbehave. So do a great many social cliques which have no formal recognition of any kind.

You're certainly correct that fraternity brothers rally around each other when one is accused of something. I'm not sure that this differs appreciably from the black community's embrace of O.J. Simpson. In general, I certainly agree that this is a bad thing. (I would qualify this, though, since "innocent until proven guilty" is largely a legal posture. Most people are insufficiently skeptical of accusations, rape being perhaps the sole exception (unjustly so), and in practice, it's nearly impossible for someone accused of something to clear his name unless he can prove his innocence.) I'm less certain that there's a whole lot we can do about it, even if we banned fraternities. On the whole, I do believe that fraternities (at least now) probably do more good than harm (I'm pretty sure all fraternities require some sort of public service), though I realize I'm in a pretty small minority in that belief.
You can call me sexist or anti-feminist, though I would disagree with either judgment, but it is my firm opinion that women civilize men.

I don't consider that sexist, as long as it doesn't mean that women get blamed for failing when men act uncivilised. That gets into of-course-he-drinks-his-wife's-a-nag, she-shouldn't-have-worn-that-skirt territory, which I'm sure nobody here supports. I'm a bit wary of blaming 'hormones out of control', though; I've never heard of a situation where hormones couldn't have been brought under control by the exercise of maturity, morality and decency, all of which boys are perfectly capable of learning. I think it's unfair to expect kids to act like adults, but I think it's good to have high expectations of kids when it comes to not hurting others. People very often live up to such expectations. But when it comes to hormones, boys have to learn how to civilise themselves; girls can help set standards, but in the end, everyone's responsible for their own soul.

I'd broaden it out, though: I think the healthiest environment for both sexes is a mixed one. There are men who hate women, and women who hate men, and while men may be better able to back that hatred up with physical violence, neither attitude is morally excusable. I find that as long as men and women are together, assuming no sexists of either gender in the room, there's a feeling of comfort and humanity that the pressure-cooker of single-sex institutions seldom produces. It's best if we can all civilise each other; that's what civilsation is for.
I see nothing to disagree with on anything you had to say. I certainly wasn't attempting to make biology an excuse for young men behaving badly or anything like that. I often get into trouble for suggesting that the urge to rape is perfectly natural. Rape, after all, is found in the animal kingdom as well. I think the reason why people find this so offensive is because they secretly agree with the "my genes made me do it" defense; I do not. Both men and women have many reprehensible instincts and urges which are perfectly natural, but a person is still morally culpable when he succumbs to them. Similarly, I also do not agree with the "my environment made me do it" defense. The entire nature/nurture argument is a false dichotomy, assuming you believe in free will (and I do).

The anti-feminism some people would find in me are those feminists (mostly dying out now, but very common in my younger days) who believe that gender differences are entirely caused by social constructs and that no gender differences exist biologically. This is fairly silly (any pre-op transsexual can tell you there is a huge difference between testosterone and estrogen), but that didn't stop many people from believing it.

And, of course, men do matter in civilizing other men. I was brought up by a single mother. Like many young men without a strong male role model, I hyper-masculinized in order to separate myself. (None of this is an excuse for the bad behavior of my youth. At that time, I consciously rejected all morality, since I could not find a compelling reason to accept it, and I am culpable for that.) For my own account, it probably wasn't misogyny which motivated me (though it is for many young men), but a general misanthropy, now happily cured.
"Frat boy" was generally a term of contempt in the circles I travelled in.

I think there's a definite extrovert/introvert dynamic in the whole fraternity thing. My observation was that people who got into fraternities and sororities were the sort of 'mundane' types--the guys wore polo shirts and baseball caps and the girls worried a lot about their hair, makeup and clothes. They were bred for suburban life. I'm not sure if I'm properly articulating it.

Weirdos like me, who wore odd clothes and read books for fun and wondered if there was, just maybe, a little more to life than an office job, a spouse, a house and 2.5 kids--well, let's just say we didn't really have much in common with them.

But, yes, they are pretty much the first stepping stone into the old-boy network, in terms of connections with The Right People.
Don't know that anybody will see this, but a contributing factor that nobody has mentioned yet is the drinking age in the US.

You mention that you see your "boaties" in the bars: in the US, boys who want to pretend to be men can't even enter a bar, let alone drink in one. Student housing in the US is segregated by age more than anything else, and the legal drinking age of 21 falls right in the gap between the freshman and sophmores who live in dorms, and the upperclassmen who live in apartments.

Frat houses are the exception, with all ages living together, so the older members can buy beer for the younger members. And that's what many of the pledges are after.
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