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Editorial: A Sorry Record of Fraternity Abuses

Sunday, March 29, 2015
A quick tour of the Internet strongly suggests that college fraternities across the country are engaging at present in what is often called in the news media a binge of “bad behavior.” That term, though, conveys a sense of boys-will-be-boys mischief-making that hardly does justice to the often dangerous, frequently disgusting and sometimes felonious nature of the activities described.

The most celebrated of these recent incidents included members of a University of Oklahoma fraternity engaging in a racist chant that was captured on video and allegations that a fraternity at Penn State maintained a private Facebook page on which it posted photos of nude and semi-nude women, some of whom were apparently asleep or passed out. According to court documents, a former fraternity member told police that the page was used to share photos of “unsuspecting victims, drug sales and hazing.”

But these are hardly the only such incidents. From Texas to Wisconsin, from North Carolina to New York state, incidents of hazing, racism and sexual assault have led to disciplinary action against multiple fraternities in recent weeks. (Oddly enough, the sanctions imposed never seem to have much effect on the future conduct of fraternity members, as the Dartmouth experience over the years has demonstrated.)

Despite all the well-publicized incidents in recent years, it must be noted that the popularity of Greek organizations is on the rise: 15 percent of freshmen at public universities and 21 percent at private universities said they were likely to join a fraternity or sorority last year, according to the Higher Education Research Institute. A decade ago, it was 8 percent at public universities and 9 percent at private ones. (Whether that says more about the appeal of Greek organizations or about the intense desire of young people today to belong to something is hard to say.)

In any case, a trade group representing 74 fraternities, the North American Interfraternity Conference, notes its members raise millions of dollars for charity every year, volunteer for millions of hours of community service and have better grade point averages than their unaffiliated peers.

How does one square these two very different portraits of fraternity life? Perhaps by calling it a Greek tragedy. No, really. In classical tragedy, the protagonist is often a powerful person who enjoys many advantages in life, but who is ultimately brought to grief — often by a fatal character flaw. In particular, many suffer from hubris, an overweening pride and arrogance that causes them to transgress boundaries recognized by ordinary people and to violate moral codes. As Aristotle put it in Rhetoric, “Hubris consists in doing and saying things that cause shame to the victim . . . simply for the pleasure of it. Young men and the rich are hubristic because they think they are better than other people.”

Fraternities have their historical roots in exclusivity and privilege, as Matthew W. Hughey, a professor at the University of Connecticut who studies Greek organizations , told McClatchy News Service for an article that appeared in the Sunday Valley News last week. They were created in the 18th- and 19th centuries to protect and foster white power, wealth and status. Some still do serve that purpose.

The question today is whether young men who bond with like-minded brothers in a closed society whose origins lie in the fact of exclusion are more likely to offend against common decency than they would as individuals. Unless all that charitable work and fundraising by fraternity members for good causes is undertaken by a completely different cohort of fraternity members from those whose depredations are featured in the news just about every day, we’re inclined to think so. And that’s a strong argument for just disbanding them.

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