Fraternity rites and wrongs
Coming over a year after the death of University of Santo Tomas law student and fraternity neophyte Horacio Tomas “Atio” Castillo III, reports of frat-related violence in the University of the Philippines and outrage over the so-called #LonsiLeaks have reignited a debate about the relevance of fraternities in our time.
Perhaps many have been desensitized to the drug killings and the “culture of violence” enabled by this administration, but the idea of UP students engaging in violent rumbles and coming up with scandalous statements rightfully rankles sensibilities — and raises the question of what values fraternities engender.
Criticisms of the so-called “Greek letter organizations” (Disclosure: I joined a fraternity, Mu Sigma Phi, in med school) mainly center around two things: frat-related violence (e.g., hazing and frat wars) and tribalism/elitism.
Frat men themselves would explain the importance of initiation rites as necessary for bonds that can be formed only through shared experiences amid great difficulty. Thinking of “rites” and other traditions as their common denominator, they seek to replicate the way they themselves were initiated.
A difficult application process can turn off many, but it can actually encourage some, for whom such an arduous undertaking can boost the mystique of the fraternity, give them bragging rights, and validate their ability to face hardships — and life itself. The popular view is that students join frats because of “connections,” but many also have the shorter-term motivation of having a more exciting social life in college. Then there are those who are impressed by a fraternity’s activities and advocacies. Most, I suspect, are driven by a combination of these reasons.
But, while the desire for a tough initiation process is understandable, so are the grave risks in a situation where a group of men are handed power over others. Studies in psychology show that people can become brutes given an enabling social environment; one classic example is the Stanford Prison Experiment, where some participants who took the role of prison guards ended up psychologically torturing the “prisoners.”
Then there is the critique that fraternities can undermine our institutions. President Duterte’s unapologetic preference for his brods, for instance, runs contrary to our meritocratic aspirations. Ominously, these same connections can also undermine calls for justice for hazing victims like Atio — in what the historian Patricio Abinales calls “institutional omerta.”
Like any other organization, fraternities can change; as Raul Palabrica pointed out in an Inquirer column last year, hazing was not practiced by most fraternities before the 1950s, underscoring their evolving character. It must also be emphasized that there’s a lot of diversity among and within fraternities, contrary to the stereotypical image of the “frat man.” (In fairness to Upsilon, I don’t think any of their brods I know are capable of saying the words in #LonsiLeaks, and many were quick to disavow them.)
Still, many of the criticisms today are valid and can only be addressed by an impartial implementation of existing laws. No one should ever have to risk their life in the name of brotherhood (there have been over 20 hazing-related deaths since the 1991 death of Ateneo student Lenny Villa), and brotherhood should not get in the way of justice. Just like family members, fraternity brods pose conflicts of interest that those in positions of power should acknowledge and act upon.
Moreover, fraternities should be mindful of how they — like all male-only organizations — can perpetuate atavistic ideals such as misogyny, homophobia, racism and the pernicious notion that might makes right.
Meanwhile, many young men are in search of mentors, role models and like-minded peers who can help them get through college life and beyond. Though other college organizations and universities-at-large offer similar things, some seek a more tightly knit group. For them, the idea of brotherhood is worth the risk and effort.
The challenge for fraternities today is to channel this youthful energy in ways that build — not destroy — their brothers’ lives, as well as the larger institutions they belong to.
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