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Why Join A Fraternity?

Charles Brakenridge, one of nine LSU Delta Kappa Epsilon members arrested on hazing-related charges (East Baton Rouge Parish mugshot)

I have never understood the appeal of joining a college fraternity. In Baton Rouge, nine members of LSU’s Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity have been booked this week into the parish prison on hazing-related charges.  Excerpt from a local news report:

Arrest warrants released Friday say DKE members operated under a code of silence that concealed abusive hazing rituals that led to the arrest of nine students this week. Pledges came forward in recent months and told their stories to university administrators and police: their fraternity brothers had beat them, doused them with gasoline and urinated on them.

The documents, filed with the arrest of two DKE members Friday, provide a window into the culture of secrecy that shrouds initiation practices at fraternities and sororities across the country. One of the warrants describes a pledge being accused of “narcing” — “in this case the act of telling a non DKE member information about what goes on inside the house.”

Police searched the DKE house on Dalrymple Drive and found the “chapter room” on the third floor as described by pledges. Writing on the walls referenced initiation rituals and included an explicit threat: “All narcs will die.”

DKE member Blake Chalin, also arrested (EBRP Prison mugshot)

The arrest warrant for Blake Chalin, 20, says a pledge accused of “narcing” was beaten up at Chalin’s residence. The pledge was told to get into the “bows and toes” position, which is a plank with only toes and elbows touching the ground, and remain there while being kicked and punched.

Chalin then made the pledge take a “new boy shower.” That ritual — which was described in several other arrest reports — involves pledges holding a milk crate filled with ice and cayenne pepper or creole seasoning above their heads while standing in a cold shower and looking up. As the ice melted, the pepper would drip into their eyes.

From a separate news account:

Allegations against nine members of LSU’s Delta Kappa Epsilon fraternity that surfaced Thursday include ordering pledges to lie face down on a basketball court covered in broken glass while being urinated on.

Pledges had gasoline poured on them and were forced to submerge themselves in an ice machine wearing nothing but their underwear, according to arrest warrants released Thursday afternoon. Members of the fraternity are also accused of kicking pledges with steel toed boots, attempting to burn them with cigarettes and beating them with a metal pipe.

The national DKE office closed its LSU chapter last month.  Good riddance.

Thugs, the lot of them. And if you think this is just a white-male thing, note that one of the DKEs arrested in this case is Shakti Gilotra, and Indian-American. And, hazing is also a problem in historically black fraternities.

I understand why people would want to be in what fraternities purport to be. But the second anybody tried to haze me, I would be out the door and calling the cops. Why do young men put up with this? I’m not asking rhetorically; I really don’t understand it. Why would young men want to be part of an organization that compels them to treat others like this? I would be deeply ashamed of my son if he did something like this to another human being. Fraternities like LSU’s Dekes train men in the art and practice of sadism.

How can you tell the difference between hazing frats and non-hazing frats? Again, I’m asking seriously.

UPDATE: Reader CJ left a long, interesting comment. Seems to have gotten screwed up at the end; I’m going to repost it here as it appears in the thread:

I am a longtime reader of yours and will try to send you a longer writeup by email this weekend, but as someone who as a college freshman never envisioned he would want to have anything to do with fraternities, much less join one, much less become president of one, perhaps I finally have something to contribute to the conversation here.

I know there is a great deal of skepticism of fraternities and sororities among outsiders. In no small part this is because relatively few students participate in it, and all the public has to go on therefore are negative news stories, mostly written by people who themselves have no direct experience of the system, and who like you don’t understand the appeal.

If you’re the kind of person who enjoys hours of quiet time alone every day, you probably won’t be interested in a fraternity. If you feel like you have enough friends already and don’t need to meet more people, you probably won’t be interested in a fraternity. If the thought of living and eating with thirty other people for three years is a nightmare for you, you probably won’t be interested in a fraternity. But you know, I was such a person, and I would be a much lesser person today were it not for my fraternity experience. I see the attitudes I held as a form of selfishness, even a form of arrogance. I strongly encourage college freshmen to keep their eyes and ears open about Greek life, but to keep their minds open as well.

A fraternity is, at its core, an institutionalized friendship. A young man arrives at school, far from home, thrust into a campus of tens of thousands of strangers, introduced to shocking ideas, brimming with the passions and appetites of youth— and unsure of their worthiness to be there, unsure of their place in the world. You knew how to navigate your childhood networks well enough, but you begin college feeling terribly alone. Your parents, your friends, your church, your team, your clubs—none of that matters now.

But you meet others who are like you, whose trust you gain and who gain your trust, among whom you can be yourself, and feel a part of something larger than you. That desire for a sense of belonging, of contributing to the team, of hunting with the pack, I think that is very much a part of human nature, and especially the masculine nature. There are many outlets and tribes to fall into in college, but most of them are just interested in one aspect of you. You might be solid friends with every percussionist at school but that doesn’t earn you a place on the marching band. You might work out with the hockey team and spend your Saturdays carousing with them, but that doesn’t make you a part of the team. Your fraternity is the group that you join not because of something you do, but because of something you are. You think they’re cool. But they think you’re cool, too, and that means a lot for a young man finding his way in the world.

A fraternity is a tremendous act of generosity in this way. I am not saying you have to join a fraternity to have good, honest, lifelong friends. But the difference between a fraternity and a group of good friends is that the fraternity continues. You are the best friends you could ever imagine being with anyone, but that is not enough. You want to share that same friendship with new people, to bring others in to the bond that you were brought into. Those who criticize fraternities as elitist and inaccessible miss the point entirely. Most groups of good friends in the world don’t spend half their time looking for ways to extend the exact same friendship to another couple dozen strangers every year.

The hazing, alcohol abuse, sexual violence, and other ills that do occur in organizations calling themselves fraternities are inexcusable. They reflect, in part, a breakdown in mores across society. There are no limits, there are no boundaries. Until the 1970s at my campus, fraternities were far and away the most consevative student organizations. They had dress codes, they had chaperoned parties, they had strict rules of conduct about everything from smoking to driving. But by the late 1970s, there were no rules. You still had the honest friendship, you still had the close bonds, but now you could take a girl upstairs, or smoke marijuana, or wear your hair long. After all, no other group on campus had rules about that sort of thing. The fraternities needed to compete, and especilly after the film Animal House came out, they knew they could compete on debauchery. This became even more true after the 21-year drinking age was mandated nationally, because their mixed membership meant they became gatekeepers to forbidden tipple.

I probably drank more alcohol on account of being active in a fraternity than I would have otherwise, but it isn’t as if alcohol didn’t permeate every other aspect of student life. The a capella groups drank, and the ethnic clubs drank, and the newspaper staffers drank, and engineering teams drank. Not a few of my friends in Bible fellowships drank too, though in private. You drank if you wanted to drink. If you didn’t, you didn’t. We had at least one brother in the fraternity who drank not a single drop of alcohol from the moment he signed his bid to the moment he marched out for commencement. We teased him about it—for about a day. He was our friend. He was our brother. And he just didn’t like the taste of it. Why would we make our friend and brother do something he found unpleasant?

This is one of the ironies of the fraternities, depicted now as bastions of “male privilege” and “toxic masculinity” and worse terms. Once you’re inside the circle, you don’t have to prove yourself to the world any more. Sure, you jostle a bit and jockey for position, as male friends of any age do, but you don’t have to put up the front of bravado and machismo. Yes, there were a few guys who were promiscuous, and overly proud of it. They didn’t earn our adulation, though, they earned our mockery. The “Dirty Dogs.” Don’t borrow a towel from them. Guys who drank too much, who were unkind, who were dishonest— that behavior was absolutely scorned. And for a young man learning what it means to be a man, based on what Hollywood has taught him, your peers have incredible power to correct your antisocial behavior. They have a lot more credibility than your RA doing her mandatory multiculturalism session, or posters put up by the health center. The worst members of the fraternity were always the new guys trying a little too hard to be cool, and they learned very quickly.

Now, fraternity culture varies quite a bit from chapter to chapter, institution to institution, and region to region. Perhaps if I’d gone to Louisiana State, I’d have been similarly put off by the culture of the groups there. But the natural feedback mechanisms that should prevent organizations from becoming toxic have been destroyed, often by unintended consequences (as with the 21-year drinking age).

For example, an undeniable appeal of joining a fraternity is to gain access to meet sorority women. Sororities have a great deal of power in this way. If a fraternity member acts uncouthly to one of their sisters, you would expect that they would cease having anything to do with that fraternity, which would then force the fraternity to discipline its member, and discourage such individuals from attempting to join. But sororities are not allowed to host events as a matter of their national organizations’ policies. They can’t disinvite bad frats from parties they don’t host. Their members socialize at the fraternity instead of their own home, where they are by definition more insecure. And a degraded sexual culture on campus means that the sorority sisters do not want to lose access to the fraternity men, either.

Similarly, there are all kinds of rules on many campuses that forbid contact between fraternity members and freshman students except during strictly regulated recruitment periods. The idea is to allow the freshman to find his bearings before striking up with a tribe—although it is only the fraternities that suffer this restriction, not sports teams or a capella groups or the LGBTQIAP coalition. But now, the freshman has no way of observing how the fraternity “works,” of making friends and allies before joining, or of understanding whether a reputation for X Y or Z is based on rumor or fact. A hazing chapter can get away with it, because to be dropped from the process means that freshman, who has invested his social and emotional energy to be accepted into a group, is now cast out, and must start the process all over again during the next formal recruitment period, which usually doesn’t come till the next semester.

My university has “deferred recruitment,” where freshman can only join fraternities during their second semester on campus, typically the spring. This is also intended to protect freshmen and give them space to grow on their own. But this cycle also means that if you get dropped from a fraternity, you might not have a place to live the next school year. The campus has a chronic shortage of housing. There is no parking on central campus, so being a commuter student is out of the picture. So even on this very pragmatic, unromantic ground, the university has actually given the fraternity a great deal of power.

There is so much wrongheadedness in the way universities attempt to regulate fraternities, which has led to dire outcomes, and it is only going to get worse. That generation who went through before the ’60s is mostly retired from university administrations and faculty now, and their more radical replacements no longer seem concerned so much about student safety or behavior as they are about ridding the university system of fraternities and sororities as living, breathing violations of all the SJW holds dear: single-sex and “heteronormative,” repositories of “privilege” and “exclusion.” In that the members live together, eat together, study together, and play together, they’re the most socialist organizations on campus, but not in the way that matters to a university administrator.

We are, after all, in an age where a young man’s smirk is enough to get him pilloried, and a smirk was pretty much my permanent facial expression from about ages 14 to 30. But I would encourage that young man, and every other, to at least consider Greek life. It is where I learned to how to take criticism, where I found my voice for the right things, where I learned how to motivate others to do the necessary things that no one wants to do, where, to be honest, I learned how to engage with women as human beings. Ending fraternities and sororities would be a greater loss to American society, I think, than anyone cares to acknowledge.

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Yet instead of encouraging openness, university policies have tried to wall off fraternity life, to pretend it doesn’t exist, to pretend it couldn’t have any appeal. At my campus, fraternity members are not even allowed to talk to freshmen until

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about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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