Dr. James Arnold studied the dynamics and inner-structures of fraternities on four separate college campuses in the Midwest between 1991 and 1995. In an interview, Arnold asked a fraternity member who was at the time a pledge-educator about his views on hazing. The young man responded, “Obviously, anytime you want to indoctrinate somebody, the way you do it is to restrict their food, restrict their sleep, get them run down and then emotionally play with them.” The student himself linked the physical and emotional forms of hazing to indoctrination. To understand how a fraternity gains influence over its members, one must first understand how hazing is fundamental to indoctrination, and thus to maintaining the hierarchy within these organizations and fueling their respective belief systems.
In the late 19th century, it was common for freshmen at universities to be considered “uncivilized” and therefore in need of “grooming” in order to become members of the university. Consequently, these freshmen became victims of a range of physical and emotional abuse. The victims then became the perpetrators, and the cycle continued with the new class of freshmen each year, driven by a twisted eye-for-an-eye mentality. As hazing faded from the general campus domain, it became deeply rooted behind the closed doors of fraternities and sororities, developing into a major part of their sacred traditions. Today, according to the National Study of Student Hazing, 73 percent of students in social fraternities or sororities have experienced hazing. However, a large gap exists between students’ experiences of hazing and their willingness to label it as such. 9 out of 10 students who have experienced hazing behaviors do not consider themselves to have been hazed. Of those who labeled their experiences as hazing, 95 percent said that they did not report the events to campus officials. Why? Even more alarmingly, why don’t these students recognize that they are being hazed? The answer lies in the use of systematic psychological indoctrination.
The effectiveness of this indoctrination is a direct result of the hierarchical structures of these organizations. This structure provides the perfect environment for the development of an imbalance of power, particularly between the pledges and the actual members. Furthermore, these organizations promote a dualistic belief system. This belief system creates the “problem,” in the form of Freudian ego-dystonia, while simultaneously offering the “solution,” ego-utopia. Early on in the pledging period, the newcomers are introduced to the “ego- utopian” ideals upon which the fraternity was built. Campaigns such as “Men of Principle” or “True Gentlemen” serve as the standards for the newbies as they pledge.
Simultaneously, the “ego-dystonic” punishment system is introduced. Pledges are encouraged to feel a sense of pride and accomplishment so long as they are included in the favor of the group, and an unpleasant ego-dystonic guilt if they are out of favor. This feeling of guilt is intensified through the punishment of the entire pledge-class for the offense of a single pledge. Consequently, the offender feels responsible for not only his own validation, but that of his entire pledge-class.
This “guilt” that exists in the mind of the pledge serves to intensify his desire to achieve the ego-utopian goals set out by his pledge-educators, and ultimately to prove his self-worth and commitment. The pledges become psychologically dependent upon the earning of recognition and appreciation from the members, who handily dish out “brownie points” in exchange for simple tasks and favors, knowing full well that the pledges will never redeem anything for this fake currency. Pledges scramble to collect these “points” by doing favors for the brothers ranging from bringing them food and covering late-night driving shifts, to performing acts of humiliation.
Fraternities don’t gain influence over their members by overpowering their free will; they can’t force anyone to do anything. Rather, they gain influence by promoting the dualistic belief system, and fostering it in the minds of the pledges throughout the pledging period. Fraternities market what they have to offer in order to gain new members, which is done primarily during the rush period towards the beginning of each semester. The process of recruitment begins by establishing a rush-chair and rush-committee, whose responsibility (along with the other members) is to make the newcomers feel welcomed and appreciated.
The young freshman, away from home for the first time, missing the emotional nourishment of his family and childhood friends, is naturally more vulnerable and therefore more likely to be lured by the prospect of “brotherhood.” The prospect of having an alternative family is branded in a slightly different way by each of the respective fraternities. The highly competitive rush period creates an environment where manipulative “dirty rush” tactics are used to gain an advantage over competing frats. These tactics often include inviting the prospective pledges to exclusive gatherings at the respective fraternity houses during the “off-hours” of the scheduled rush period. Unfortunately, the image that is carefully constructed and portrayed to the newcomers by the fraternities during the rush period is not necessarily an accurate representation of what to expect if one chooses to pledge. Critical information regarding the pledging process is purposefully withheld from the newcomers. It is impossible for a student, particularly the vulnerable and impressionable freshman, to exercise an informed decision on whether or not to pledge a certain fraternity. Rather, the decision is based on an incomplete and cautiously crafted depiction of fraternity life. This missing information can only be learned and evaluated through spending a significant amount of time with the group and by actually going through with pledging, which gets to the heart of the issue.
Hazing acts begin mildly and escalate throughout the pledging period, culminating in “hell week.” “Hell week” is where the pledges undergo the most severe physical and psychological abuse by their potential “brothers.” By the time a pledge makes it to hell week, he has already established his roots in the fraternity in the form of friendships and pledge-families. Each pledge is assigned a pledge-father and subsequently becomes a newborn in his respective pledge family, deepening his roots within the fraternity structure. At this point, if a pledge becomes uncomfortable with the escalating acts of abuse, getting out is much more difficult than it seems. He would be considered a failure, tainting the reputation and legacy of his pledge-family. The friendships that he spent the good part of a semester building with his pledge-class would never be the same. This places a young freshman in a nearly impossible situation: stand up for yourself and lose everything you worked toward, or forfeit any remaining shred of self-respect and submit to the abuse. Most choose the latter.
In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. This Act shifted much of college partying away from the bars and towards private houses. This shift from the public to the private domain was ideal for fraternities. Many people of the Baby Boomer generation who were in college in 1984 can recall that exact day. An article from The Atlantic in March 2014 titled “The Dark Powers of Fraternities” describes these Baby Boomers as “having grown into the helicopter parents of today, holding fiercely to a pair of mutually exclusive desires: on the one hand that their kids get to experience the same unfettered personal freedoms of college that they remember so fondly, and on the other that the colleges work hard to protect the physical and emotional well- being of their precious children.” Many of these parents are also loyal alumni, donating millions of dollars each year to the host universities and local fraternity chapters of their alma-maters.
In addition, student housing among the Greek organizations provides tremendous financial savings to host institutions, valued at over $3 billion dollars nationwide. These are among the ways the Greek organizations pin their host university administrations in a financial full-nelson. Local chapters have developed a sophisticated system of shifting the blame for their actions by handing off the task of acquiring insurance into the hands of their national organizations. In effect, they have developed procedures and policies that shift as much of their liability as possible to outside parties, as well as finding creative means of protecting their massive assets from juries.
Consider for instance the $10 million Title IX lawsuit filed against the Beta Theta Pi fraternity at Wesleyan University. The case involves a young woman who was the victim of sexual assault and rape while at a party at the Beta Theta Pi house. In an outrageous quirk of litigation, the young woman ended up being blamed by the university for her own assault.
In the U.S., 44 out of 50 states have anti-hazing laws, yet these existing laws are ineffectual and treat hazing as little more than jaywalking. A Bloomberg editorial from January 2014 claims that a top-down approach in which a federal law that makes serious hazing a felony offense might be able to help college administrators overcome their reluctance to enforce bans on hazing for fear of offending alumni who threaten to withhold contributions.
The original purpose of fraternities was to establish a society of men organized in an environment of companionship and brotherhood, dedicated to the intellectual, physical, moral, and social development of its members. While one can argue that enduring hazing induces group bonding and cohesion, it also erodes the original foundation upon which fraternities were established. Dr. Susan Lipkins, a psychologist and author of “A Primer on Hazing in the 21st Century” deflates the common idea that cohesion and “healthy bonding” is directly correlated to the severity of hazing acts. Healthy bonding and cohesion can be accomplished by fraternities without the humiliating, degrading, and abusive elements of hazing. Only when the fraternities relinquish their eye-for-an-eye mentality, and return to upholding the original values upon which they were established, will hazing cease to exist.