Sore or orities

March 11, 2007 | By | 9 Replies More

A sorority at De Pauw University booted out a bunch of its pledges and it made the news.  Here is the link to the story.

Before I continue, I wish to make my own sentiments perfectly clear.  I detest the notion of fraternities and sororities.  They are, to me, childish things which people belong to out of some desire to be special without having to rely on their own abilities–special by association.  Pass the initiation, become accepted as a member, and you then can “borrow” the prestige of the group.

Or be tainted by it, as with, say, the John Birch Society or the KKK. 

This is not to say I see no reason for many of these associations to exist–unions are a very loose form of such things, and I would argue that they serve a positive purpose, although they share the same capacity for abuse of the individual as any large organization, corporate, religious, or social.  They are, to put it in as simple terms as I can, a necessary evil.

My prejudice in this regard stems from one of the more persistent myths underlying American culture–that of the coherent and independent individual.  I say myth because it is patently untrue–likely an impossibility–and yet we struggle collectively toward instantiating the model through our laws, our national ethos, and our image of ourselves as individuals.

Which makes joing a fraternity or a sorority a particularly perplexing contradiction.

One joins such organizations for numerous reasons all of which center or potential benefits from the association.  Anyone who remembers the 2000 election will be aware of the brief flurry of press about Bush’s membership in a Yale fraternity of some notoriety, the Skulls.  His dad was a member, as were many other politicians.  The implication was that membership bestowed an undeserved leg up in life. 

Well, frankly, that is the whole point of such clubs.  Masonry is the model.  Part of the benefit derives from their exclusivity, which is portrayed by opponents of the Greek system as anti-democratic.

But this, too, is based on a misapprehension of the nature of democracy. 

I refer now to the fact of it, not the ideal, which has become something wholly other than its origins.  In his excellent book about the Greek myths, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, Roberto Calasso writes:

Equality only comes into being through initiation.  It does not exist in nature, and society wouldn’t be able to conceive of the idea if it weren’t structured and articulated by initiation.  Later, there comes a moment when equality is geared into history and thence marches on and on until the unsuspecting theorists of democracy imagine they had discovered it–and set it against initiation, as though it were its opposite.

There’s a lot in that paragraph and it is illuminating to look at the 20th century through the lens it provides.  Everyone, it seems, wants to be part of the club called democracy.  They see the benefits of the club.  Benefits obvious only because it is a club apart from other clubs.  They want to belong to it in such numbers that eventually it will no longer be a club, but simply the state in which we all “naturally” exist.

But it’s an implausible ideal, because in order to belong to the club one has to change from one state to another.  And the benefits, frankly, one expects cease to be benefits once so many people share them that there is no distinction between people. 

This is a paradox, and such things as fraternities and sororities point up the paradox eloquently and make us generally uncomfortable. 

In microcosm, the initiation rites of such organizations imitate the citizenship pledges we expect of new citizens, who do in fact go through an initiation to become part of the club.  There are laws they must abide by.  I think, honestly, the nature of the requirements are less important than that there are requirements.  We have changed them over time, but still, you must speak the language, understand the history of the country, and be willing to take an oath.

There is nothing natural about this.  And the bestowal of benefits upon completion of these requirements is an aritfice.  That doesn’t make these benefits false or unreal, but we need to understand that so-called Rights are constructs.  They do not exist in nature. 

But we wish to pretend they do.  Because Americans are born into a club that grants us automatic membership, we grow up assuming this is the way things ought to work everywhere, and those systems which deny the kind of oppression-free existence we enjoy are the artificial systems,  Then we run into things like the Boy Scouts, Masonry, frats and sororities, unions, and so forth.  When we are accepted into these things without major obstacle, we see them as more or less social niceties, perks of self-selected life choices.

But when those communities exercise their implicit rights to deny us entre, well, then we get all huffy and demand equal access.

Which access was never equal to begin with.

So a bunch of young women who didn’t understand that they were joining in essence an autocratic institution got tosses because they didn’t meet the standards.  I frankly don’t care what those standards are.  If one doesn’t like the idea of discrimination, the proper response to fraternities and sororities is to refuse to join.  That, frankly, is the action of the assumed idealized individual that the American mythos presumes as our birthright.

But those who join understand, instinctively, that there is benefit to be derived from membership, and by so joining they seek advantage over those who are not pledges.  The bleat of the rejected is disingenuous because by joining they have made a move to separate themselves from “others’ by assuming a special status, bestowed by the institution, and wearable by association.  Their motives, while consciously perhaps are social, are part and parcel of an initiation and benefit cycle going back to the Greek mysteries of inclusion and exclusion–which is why the system is called Greek, by the way.

If in fact we don’t like the idea of exclusive organizations, then the best way to deal with them is by letting them die on the vine.  Don’t join.  But if you do, then understand that you are supporting a system which has the innate right to withdraw membership.  It is a democracy in the classic Athenian model–the members get to say and by definition get to say who’s a member.  It can be cruel.

But how is it any different than the larger system? 

We are working toward a point at which the rules by which membership in the democracy are less personal, having to do with things we can all achieve or meet, unlike past eras where race, literacy, physical type, disease, etc stood in for “fair” standards,  But while we don’t rely on such things anymore, we still assume there must be standards.  When we forget this, it comes as a rude shock when someone rejects us from something we assume we should have access to just by being who we are.

As I said above, I detest the fraternity and sorority systems.  My response to them is to have never participated.  But I don’t pretend that they are somehow antithetical to being an American.  By virtue of setting standards of initiation, they are based–loosely–on the very foundation of America.  Our first act was to claim the right to be apart from a larger polity and by virtue of the apartness, to be different.  Which meant, implicitly, that we accepted the idea that standards could be set and applied and that individuals must meet them to be part of the club.

We’ve gotten more sophisticated at making people feel like such membership is an altogether natural recognition of born rights, but really, it isn’t.  Not entirely arbitrary, no, but not in any way something recognizable as natural.

So to the unfortunate girls who got booted at De Pauw…sorry, but that’s the nature of the system you tried to be part of.  If you don’t like it, don’t play.

Or…start your own sorority.  Then you can boot those who qualify for all those other ones.


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Category: American Culture, Bigotry, Civil Rights, Culture, Current Events, Education

About the Author ()

Mark is a writer and musician living in the St. Louis area. He hit puberty at the peak of the Sixties and came of age just as it was all coming to a close with the end of the Vietnam War. He was annoyed when bellbottoms went out of style, but he got over it.

Comments (9)

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  1. Gary says:

    I'm sorry you have such a negative attitude about fraternities. My own experience was probably the best in my life. It gave me opportunitites to learn skills that I have applied to my career. The nonsense at DePauw and the other things that you cite, such as "The implication was that membership bestowed an undeserved leg up in life. " are perversions of what fraternity is about.

    Your blog, to me, is similar to proposing that anti-biotics are bad because doctors overprescribed. Founded properly with constructive ideals is the basis for a useful, fun experience in collegate fraternal life.

  2. grumpypilgrim says:

    Jason is, unfortunately, one of many people who got their opinion about fraternities and sororities from widespread prejudice rather than from first-hand experience. I was in a college fraternity and would highly recommend the experience to anyone seeking skills in leadership, management, corporate governance, socializing, entertaining, etc. Yes, there are parties and, yes, there are a few bad apples, but guess what: life is the same way. And guess what else: just like in life, parties can be fun and you sometimes do have to work with bad apples, so the sooner you learn about what these things are like, the better off you will be.

    The truth is, fraternities and sororities are far more heterogeneous, and far more community-oriented, than people like Jason realize. For example, my chapter house had a wide range of men from many different socio-economic backgrounds. Yes, a few had wealthy parents, but about a third of the guys in my house were putting themselves through college with virtually no financial help at all from their parents. Like me, they grew up with relatively few opportunities, so they wanted to learn leadership and other skills while they were still in college, because they were not getting them in their courses.

    As regards community service, my fraternity created, from scratch, a campus-wide winter carnival that raised nearly ten thousand dollars for charity (in 1980 dollars). Can Jason make a similar claim about his college days? This past year, men in my chapter organized a bike marathon to raise money for charity. Many other fraternities also do fund-raising events for charities. Unfortunately, these events don’t often make headlines the way Jason’s little example of bigotry did. With that in mind, I would urge Jason, and others like him, to dig a little deeper before passing judgment on a culture they clearly do not understand. For those interested in hacking away at some of their ignorance, here’s a document that might help:

  3. Jason Rayl says:

    Two points to answer both Gary and Grumpy:

    one, my essay is about the general misundxerstanding of what the Greek system is all about. In that sense, it was a defense against the criticisms of those who are disturbed by what happened at De Pauw. The system is what it is.

    two, I indicated that there are many reasons to join a fraternity and sorority and that there are many benefits from the joining. Many benefits. My criticism of the system is personal–albeit not from personal experience, but just a general dislike of artificial systems of separation and privilege–but if you will read the piece more closely you will see that I suggest that people who join them ought not be surprised when they trip over the negative aspects of them, since they are based on initiation and standards of exclusiveness.

    for the record, I was a member of the DeMolay, which is a teen version of Masonry, and very much a fraternal order. We did many, many good things in the community, things of which I was rightly proud. Nevertheless, the question I came to ask was, how come we needed this excessively ritualistic order to do those things? What else was there about membership that made it attractive? In the end, it was an appeal to a desire on the part of many to be somehow institutional apart from those who weren't DeMolay. That to me is childish. Nothing wrong with being childish, no matter what age, but it ought to be recognized as such, and if the consequences of membership turn out to have a negative aspect, well, gee, pay attention before joining.

  4. Ben says:

    Hard to pick sides here, but I think I lean toward Jason's point of view.

    I have not been a college fraternity member. I have been to a few frat parties though, and one of my friends was a member. He truly liked his frat, and quickly became close with them. Since we were still friends, I was introduced to the frat guys, mostly fine gentlemen (and ALL outstanding drinkers). Eventually, he became completely absorbed in the fraternity life (the good parts too), and often left the rest of us standing on the sideline, as the activities of the became more and more exclusive. We ended up drifting apart, but I hear that he is doing fine in life. Overall, it was a good experience for my friend (in my opinion), he gained a support group, and gained many new friends. The part I disdain is the exclusivity, it reminds of members-only golf courses, elite-only country clubs, first-class seats, and white-only lunch counters.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Jason's comment, the fraternal order of Masons has a very different history than do college fraternities and sororities. When the Masonry began, excessive ritual was critical to its success. Centuries ago, the building of a large brick structures (e.g., a cathedral or bridge) was (as it still is today) a relatively infrequent and large-scale project. Consequently, it drew job-seekers from far and wide. People who were skilled at building such structures (masons) would travel to wherever such projects were being financed. Likewise, unemployed people who were not skilled would also travel to such projects, in the hope of finding jobs. Of course, those job seekers (as many still do today) would often inflate their qualifications in the hope of getting a better, higher-paying job. Unfortunately for the project managers in those days, there was rarely any way to tell if a prospective job candidate was inflating their skills or not: virtually everyone was illiterate (so written credentials attesting to their qualifications didn't exist), nor did communication lines exist (so there was no way to verify references of past employment). The Masonry began as a way to circumvent these problems. Members of the Masonry, after complying with elaborate rituals designed to ensure both personal integrity and secrecy, would receive a secret handshake or password which would henceforth testify to their level of achievement (i.e., their level of achievement in the organization, corresponding to their level of masonry skill, and their level of commitment to the organization itself). This privileged information then enabled them to travel far and wide with a very portable, yet relatively objective credential that could not be easily falsified. Members guarded their secret rituals because they helped ensure better jobs, and non-members hated them because they meant worse jobs for the uninitiated. Perhaps Jason's dislike of fraternities and sororities has similar roots?

    Today of course, as Jason points out, such traditions are largely irrelevant in the Masonry and other charitable organizations, but long-held traditions take a long time to die.

    College fraternaties and sororities, of course, have a very different history and serve a very different purpose. Jason says he dislikes them because he believes they are an "artificial system of separation and privilege." Well American citizenship is also an artificial system of separation and privilege. So is having the right to vote. So is having a driver's license, or a library card, or a Harvard diploma. So is having a ticket to a play or to a World Series baseball game. So is having a job at IBM or inside the White House. So is having a key to Jason's car or his home. Artificial systems of separation and privilege are ubiquitous, so why should we single out fraternities and sororities for our dislike? I'm sure Jason would not want 30,000 college students to have a key to his car or his home; likewise, fraternities and sororities do not open their doors to every student on campus. They use "initiations and standards of exclusiveness" to help them select whom to include and whom to exclude, just as Jason undoubtedly does when he selects to whom he gives his keys.

    Bottom line: there simply is no logical reason to dislike fraternities and sororities merely for the reason Jason mentions. It is akin to illegal immigrants criticizing U.S. immigration policy merely because it is exclusive, or Jason's neighbors complaining that he has arbitrary initiation procedures with respect to lending his car keys. Accordingly, the real reason for criticisms of the college Greek system must lie elsewhere, most likely in the fact that disliking the Greek system is a popular and socially acceptable thing to do among a large percentage of college-educated people.

  6. Jason Rayl says:


    If you look at what I said a bit closer, you'll see that I actually defend fraternities and sororities right to exist. And I do make the point that in many ways they are like citizenship. Most Americans don't see it because, as I said, we're "born into the club." Immigrants get it, though.

    I just think people should be aware that the right to include implicitly means the right to exclude and one shouldn't join anything without understanding that. So my screed was aimed mainly at the bleating of the broken-hearted rejected, who seemed not to understand the way things are very well.

    As for logic–I also mentioned, and perhaps should have enlarged upon, that my dislike is personal and based on a misapprehension of the myth of the American individual. Perhaps I'll address that myth in another post later.

    Bottom line–I don't disagree with a thing you say. I just see it as something other than a totally wonderful thing. The young ladies at De Pauw have experienced the not wonderful part of it, which is very real and wired into the system. I simply don't understand why anyone was shocked and surprised.

  7. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to the above thread, here's an article about how Greek organizations at my local university organized a safe-walk program in response to some assaults that occurred last year:

    Bottom line: I hope people do not characterize the Greek system according to articles like the one Jason mentions above. Any organization composed of college students will display behavior across a broad spectrum, with both good and bad. The bad stuff always makes news, but the good stuff often doesn't, even though there is a lot more good stuff than bad. Are fraternities and sororities selective about whom they admit? Yes, of course they are, just as good colleges are selective about whom they admit, good employers are selective about whom they hire, and each of us is selective about whom we have as friends. Thus, the moral question isn't, "should we be selective or not;" it is, "what criteria should we use to select?" As regards that latter question, most Greek organizations use virtually the same criteria that most employers use.

  8. skookum says:

    I have been rejected as a daughter because I do not fit the mold of a sorority girl. Sorority people didn't like me when I was in college and did nasty things to me. I did complete my degree in mathematics. I am now 61 and my parent is 85. She told me she doesn't LIKE ME and doesn't want me at HER funeral and didn't want me visiting . I have cut off contact with her and remaining family since 2003 and now am struggling with cancer without a family.

    I think it wonderful that some people have parents whom they love. If there is a 'next life' I want another kind of mother.

  9. gatomjp says:

    Sorry to hear that skookum. It sounds to me like you are an individualist and never could nor wanted to fit anyone's preconcieved notions of who you should be. I understand that and applaud you. I also know that rejection by a parent is one of the strongest stings one can feel. I wish you much luck with your battle…and in your "next life".

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