Point: Are Fraternities Harmful and Should You Join One?
Volume XXXVI, Issue 3, December 13, 2013
A little over two years ago, in the fall of my sophomore year, I was in a position that seems fairly common for Amherst males who don’t belong to a fraternity or a varsity team: I wasn’t sure where I fit into our social strata. So when somebody in Chi Psi started sending me emails asking if I wanted to hang out in “the Lodge,” I thought I’d give this frat thing a shot.
I started showing up to the Chi Psi Lodge with Charlie McAllister ’14, who was in more or less the same boat as I was. Some of my readers will know that Charlie is one of my closest friends; for those who don’t, suffice it to say that Charlie is an endearingly avian human being whom I plan to be friends with for a very, very long time. You can imagine, then, that we were a bit taken aback when Chi Psi’s then-president gave us and the other prospective pledges his pitch, which went something like this: “Sure, you have friends when you’re not in Chi Psi. But friendships only last so long. In Chi Psi, you have brothers. When you come back for homecoming, we have a tent.”
I can’t pretend the decision was entirely straightforward. Both Charlie and I were initially dismissive of Chi Psi, but we both felt like we could use a jolt to our social lives. Plus, being wanted is fun. But the notion that we couldn’t be friends after Amherst if Chi Psi didn’t stamp its seal of approval on our friendship ended up making it exceptionally easy to turn down the invitation that was extended to both of us the next week. And, in hindsight, that notion seems to bear out much of why frats are harmful to our community.
After all, one of the reasons that Chi Psi’s president distinguished between his brothers and his mere friends is surely that the former had proven their loyalty to him by pledging. And so, if I had joined Chi Psi or another fraternity, I’d have likely become complicit in some sort of hazing culture. I don’t think I need to waste anyone’s time arguing that hazing is reprehensible. Standard arguments against the practice would probably note the physical and psychological damage it wreaks. I’d probably add that it seems profoundly bizarre to want to be friends with anyone whose friendship is contingent on your willingness to humiliate yourself in front of him. At any rate, hazing is mind-numbingly dumb and it ought to provoke shame and outrage from all.
I can’t claim to know what goes on behind closed doors. If you ask a member of a fraternity if that fraternity hazes, he will invariably tell you, “Of course not,” or, “Well, the drinking part is optional.” But research indicates that 90% of students who have been hazed don’t believe they’ve been hazed.1 And the assurance that “drinking is optional” doesn’t mean much in a pledging environment that reeks of coercion, explicit or otherwise. It’s also worth pointing out that my inability to know what goes on is part of the problem—how can we evaluate whether hazing practices meet some minimal standard of decency if we can’t know anything about them?
Still, some stories slip through the cracks. If you know five Amherst fraternity members well, you probably know something about hazing. For my part, I’ve heard stories about strippers and dildos, alcohol-induced vomiting in the woods, and freshmen dropping classes on account of increased anxiety. If you’re willing to accept that Amherst frats haze at all, that’s enough to say that they’re harmful.
And yet, people are joining frats despite whatever hazing takes place. The natural question, of course, is why? People join frats for different reasons, but often, one of them is some permutation of “I like being part of a group and having a support network, and my social life is important to me, but I’m not on a sports team.” That line of thinking is quite transparently a byproduct of deeper social wounds. I’m referring to what’s already been outlined ad nauseam in The Indicator and elsewhere, by myself and others: Our social divisions, our social self-consciousness, and our painfully stilted conversations.
The problem, then, is that frats merely put a Band-Aid on those wounds and, in so doing, stifle our ability to heal them. They perpetuate a cycle of artificial social divisions. Of course, we want people to join groups, and it would be wrong to say that people should forbid themselves from extracurricular associations in the name of campus cohesion. But this is where it’s critical to think through the essential differences between a frat and, say, the fencing club. Whereas the fencing club is an organization for the sake of fencing, a frat is an organization for the sake of being an organization. The upshot is that frats are by definition socially exclusive—they derive their cachet from constructing a set of friendships and differentiating them from other friendships, invoking the rhetoric of brotherhood, and wielding the immense power to accept or reject prospective members on the basis of collective social assessments.
Now, freedom of association is a beautiful thing, and, short of a Psi U-esque policy, it’s hard to see what the College could ever do to stop ten guys from living off-campus together and painting some Greek letters on their door. The issue falls to prospective fraternity members themselves. I don’t doubt that frats have done some positive things for Amherst students (“some of my best friends are in frats!”). I live across the quad from the DKE suites in Crossett, and, judging by their Thursday night hoedowns (I believe I’m allowed to call them that in the post-“Timber” era, and I really hope this article doesn’t prevent me from getting an invite), those guys do seem to have forged deep friendships. I haven’t even brought up, say, TD’s t-shirt crisis because I’m not sure that’s the issue here; that may have more to do with bad people being bad than frat members being frat. But I wonder whether, given the costs of fraternities, those friendships I’m seeing couldn’t have been born elsewhere.
I’m told that Thursday night frat gatherings—called “G.O.T.E.’s,” or “gatherings of the elites”—are often confessional in nature (before they turn into the hoedowns, I guess). Perhaps it’s only fair that I end on a confessional note myself: When I first thought about writing this article, I felt like I shouldn’t have to. The administration’s current stance—“we don’t have frats, but we do”—is so entrenched at this point that it seems like there are bigger fish to fry. Who cares that DKE has a few suites in Crossett when we have a sexual assault crisis on our hands? Moreover, virtually everyone I know who is not in a frat agrees that frats are probably harmful. Arguing about Amherst is growing more tedious by the day—why bother doing more of it?
I think I eventually arrived at something resembling an answer. Cultural issues are necessarily broad-based—if we care about developing a more open and inclusive community, we may have to look in places that seem removed from the flashpoints of the current debate. These arguments matter because our friends matter, and because our community matters. Because Amherst is, by design, more than a series of courses, the onus is on all of us to do our best not to damage the community we’ve willfully joined: Even if you haven’t found the perfect group on campus, you oughtn’t compound the problem by joining a harmful one.
The administration may maintain its current awkward stance on frats, but you can still choose not to join one. We’ll all be better off for it.