Forty years ago, I walked onto a college campus with simple goals: Get good grades, make some friends and don’t get swallowed alive by the massive gears of a large university.
The desire to establish an immediate comfort zone led many of my fellow University of Maryland freshmen to burrow into fraternity life. This happened during a custom known as “rush,” in which eager new students subjected themselves to approval rituals inside any one of a number of Greek-lettered buildings along College Park’s Fraternity Row.
I had the average new arrival’s eagerness to make new connections, but I soon caught wind of dark anecdotes along the path to fraternity acceptance.
Some involved massive alcohol consumption associated with absurdly degrading rituals. Some involved dangerous and perverted pranks no self-respecting person should be a part of. Some involved activities of such depravity that I decided to cast my fate in the open ocean of dormitory life.
I have friends from those days whom I cherish still today, and at no point did I bond with them by forming a naked pyramid.
I also made friends along Frat Row, attending a few parties through my college years, where I encountered plenty of brothers for whom the memories of humiliation had been replaced by more pleasant recollections of camaraderie, shared history and even a variety of uplifting charitable works that give Greek life some deserved respect.
But woven through the layers of fraternity life from my first exposure to it through decades of discussing it (usually as its excesses break into the headlines), there have been recurring themes of behavioral and attitudinal pathologies that should baffle even a casual observer.
Are fraternities rampant cauldrons of racism and sexual predation? No, but can examples of such ugly traits be found with relative ease at campuses of every size across America? Of course. As such, it was a fairly ridiculous episode when so much of America convulsed with surprise upon discovering an Oklahoma University Sigma Alpha Epsilon bus filled with stupid frat boys reveling in a repulsive chant.
Bulletin: Year in and year out, America’s college fraternities contain some examples of unhinged young men doing things for pure, lame-brained shock value. I hear sororities are not immune from some transgressions of youth’s ill wisdom, but the most egregious excesses tend to be a guy thing.
The SAE chant, with its cruel epithet, was more a display of oblivious boorishness than actual virulent racism. But that does not make it OK.
The infamous University of Virginia rape scandal has turned out to be a fabrication at the hands of a magazine, Rolling Stone, bent on running a story to fit its “rape culture” narrative, even if it is deviously concocted. But that does not mean fraternities are never dens of occasional sexual misbehavior.
And this is before we even get to alcohol consumption, which can range from recreational binges to fatal hazing rituals.
For some reason — probably because its grown adult products are hesitant to say they engaged as foolish kids in behaviors that were occasionally loathsome — fraternity life hums along generally unchecked, until the latest university has to shut down some house or another because of the latest disgusting thing to occur within its walls.
There are surely positives to Greek life, and it deserves its defenders. But what it also deserves is a swift kick in its collective pants from university communities and a general public weary of tales of misbehavior which have no necessary function in the forwarding of friendships or the forging of respectable young men.
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