I never pledged a fraternity, and, in retrospect, I’m glad I didn’t. Don’t get me wrong: it was tempting in those first weeks of my freshman year at the small liberal arts college I attended. The campus was abuzz with fraternity life when I arrived, and all of us newbies were getting “dates” to attend this or that function with any of the many fraternities that promised “brotherhood” and “friendships that last a lifetime,” not to mention an active social life while you labored through the four years of collegiate life.
I was rushed by four or five houses, and I took a fancy to one that, most probably in my innocence and naiveté, I would have pledged. A few days before the bids were offered, however, a couple of the brothers from the fraternity paid me a visit in my dorm. They informed me, in the most solemn of terms, that I had—“most unfortunately”—been blackballed by one of their fraternity brothers on account of my being “too radical.”
I had no idea what a blackball was (the brothers gently explained its devastating existence, whereby one sole fraternity member could vote to keep out anyone from the hallowed membership). But I was far more surprised to be considered “radical,” since I was, at the time, a tee-totaling, God-fearing, most ardent supporter of Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater. (Consider the irony that being too conservative was “radical” back in 1964.)
In any event, I licked my wounds and proceeded to live the life of a GDI (God-damned Indie) for my four years at Gettysburg, while would-be friends from my freshman dorm pledged the frats of their choice and succumbed to the ritual of sometimes brutal hazing that then led to the presumed social lives of their dreams as brothers in one of the thirteen fraternities on the campus at the time.
About a third of us managed to avoid the ritual, and yet somehow most of us were able to get our share of dates and otherwise live fairly normal social lives, albeit free of some of the “hijinks” our fraternity classmates were reportedly engaging in. What I was told I missed out on were nights of sexual ribaldry and drunken stupors along with the alleged “camaraderie” that could not be duplicated outside of a fraternity.
Nothing of course could be further from the truth. While I remained relatively free of the drunken stupors, I did form several lasting male friendships. I also had a few meaningful relationships with members of the opposite sex, without the kind of misogynistic sexual abuse that the fraternity jocks could be overheard clucking about from time to time. (These were pre-date rape times, but the practice was no less prevalent.)
Fraternities on a small campus like mine were the norm. But it was a perverse norm, accentuating all the sexist and degenerative aspects of late male adolescence that enlightened young men and women now regard as an anachronistic oddity.
And they represent an even more repellant form of “bonding” now, in the age of feminist equality and sexual liberation that most millennials implicitly accept as right and just. My sons did not even consider fraternities when they were in college a decade ago, albeit both were and are active socially and maintain strong bonds to friends of both the male and female persuasions.
And yet despite all of the indicators to the contrary, these anachronistic modes of promoting the youthful macho-man image of the Playboy mold continue to exist and even flourish on many college campuses. Every year, seemingly, some scandal or outrage is revealed. This year’s was the report earlier this month that a pair of dudes from the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house on the University of Oklahoma’s campus had sung a racist song in the presence of their female dates that heralded the fact that no African-Americans would ever be accepted into their fraternity. The young men were promptly expelled from the university, and that action has produced the predictable backlash from liberal groups demanding that the students be re-admitted in the name of freedom of speech.
Whatever the merits of that demand (I am far from convinced of its legitimacy), the irony of it is that it ignores the underlying problem. The real issue isn’t whether those two students should be permitted to remain in school; it’s whether their fraternity–or any fraternity–should be allowed to exist on any college campus. While I am not advocating Congressional legislation to that effect, I do believe that every college and university that has these behemoths from a long-past bygone era in their midst should consider closing them down.
Fraternities promote sexism and they prohibit non-conformity and individualism. They promulgate elitism and they reject inclusion. They are an analog to the culture that often exists in military units, wherein everyone must march to the same drumbeat and boot camp is where you lose your identity in favor of the corps. But military units have at least a presumed legitimate function, that being to secure and safeguard the homeland.
Fraternities have no such legitimacy. They do provide a social life (one, however, that most definitely can and does exist independent of them), but that meager benefit is far outweighed by the negative effects of sadistic hazing, sexist rituals, and self-inflated machismo. And when you add racism and homophobia to the list of ill-effects that flow from them or are promoted by them, their continued existence under the auspices of academic institutions of higher learning is an outrage.
Boys will always be boys, but college should be a time when they are taught to be responsible and morally upstanding men. Fraternities foster adolescent behavior in its most undesirable and unattractive form. They encourage conduct and promote life styles that most of mainstream society rejects, or at least finds distasteful. Their continued existence should be limited to “grandfather” allowances until all those currently members of recognized fraternities have graduated. Beyond those few years, colleges and universities (and the country as a whole) should be free from the scourge of their existence.