September 22, 2017

HAGOPIAN | Greek Life Should Not Exist

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I have two rules that serve as mooring posts for my socio-political thought. The first, which I shall call Postulate 1, is to remember that there is no master plan. When I was a child, I preferred English to history because I thought they were both stories and I found novels more interesting than textbooks. I had an epiphany in my middle-school U.S. history class, when the teacher said that X happened and then Y happened and then Z happened and that led to the trouble we’re facing in the present day. My first thought was, “Holy Crap, history actually happened.” My second thought was, “Man, those people in the past were pretty stupid.” The days of yore had just as many mistakes and bumbling idiots as they did triumphs and founding fathers. Societal norms are shaped by accident; trust them as far as you can throw them.

That was Postulate 1. Postulate 2 is more meta-cognitive. It is to always carry an idea through to its completion. This idea is especially relevant in the progressive community. Even Susan B. Anthony, a noted activist and by all accounts a brilliant woman, sometimes failed to follow postulate 2. She believed that she was deserving of full personhood as a white woman, yet she seceded from the woman’s suffrage movement to form her own organization that opposed the 15th amendment. In other words, Anthony wanted empathy extended to one particular marginalized group but not another; she didn’t carry her ideas through to their logical conclusion. You’d be surprised how often that happens.

If we apply Postulate 2 to Postulate 1, we get very close to understanding a central truth of the human condition. People study history in school, they know that societies have led their people astray since time immemorial. Yet they remain disinclined to question the society in which they currently live. Why? Because people take their behavioral cues from other people and have very little ability to hold frame in opposition to perceived authority. (If I were feeling especially frisky, I might call this Corollary 1, but I will leave it unnamed for now in the interest of readability.) It is because of this flaw in our psyche that things like fraternities continue to exist.

Paul Russell is a fellow columnist at The Sun and is also a member of a fraternity. In July, he wrote a piece for Business Insider defending fraternities. Though I don’t know Paul personally, I’ve heard him speak at our columnist meetings. I’ve watched him perform as an opening act at the Jamila Woods show.  He seems like a good guy. But to paraphrase a friend of mine, his piece almost reads like satire. It’s 12 paragraphs extolling fraternal brotherhood with some rhetoric about “doing something” to fix systemic issues thrown in at the end. If these potential solutions don’t merit further explanation in your article, why should I believe that they will be fully explored by “the council” or any other of your decision-making bodies?

Weighing brotherhood and community bonding against racism, misogyny, hazing deaths and sexual assault is so insane that it almost beggars belief. But social conditioning does funny things to people. Create a close-knit group, throw in some markers of tradition and exclusivity (i.e. some Greek letters), and before you know it he’s arguing that a few deaths and rapes are the price one has to pay for all that friendship.

Are racism, sexism and alcohol abuse society-wide issues that are present in other places besides fraternities? Of course. If you think that’s a legitimate argument in defense of communities that exhibit these characteristics at frighteningly high rates, then there’s no help for you. If you think that fraternities are okay because they do charity work, I would say that charity work has existed before the Greek system and it will exist long after it. These people can put on fundraisers without being in Greek life. And if you respond to that by saying “they won’t,” then I would say that perhaps they didn’t learn so much about the brotherhood of man after all.

There are many institutions in this world, and some of them do a great deal of good. But institutional badness, because of its terrible destructive power, must carry more weight in the decision-making process than institutional goodness. If all these fraternity and sorority chapters are truly the uncommon paragons they say they are, they should be able to see the bigger picture and disband themselves. If these organizations truly care about college students as much as they say they do, they’d liquidate and donate all their money to loan forgiveness and mental health programs. There are plenty of opportunities for brotherhood to go around, and I would rather disband a thousand communities than continue to enable a malignant system.


Ara Hagopian is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at The Whiny Liberal appears alternate Fridays this semester.

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  • bigredalumnus

    The author thinks she knows fraternities, has them figured out. But she doesn’t.

    • Jay Wind

      In this case, the author appears to be a male in the Class of 2018. He is not a member of a fraternity. His argument is that because humans have fault, we should not allow any fraternity, because they are self-governing organization consisting of humans.

      His next argument is more problematic: If Cornell has accepted gifts to help or benefit one specific set of people or for one specific purpose, Cornell should break its promise and redistribute those gifts “to loan forgiveness and mental health programs.” I suppose that a misguided human could give a gift to Cornell for an evil purpose, and Cornell could decline the gift. But if someone gives money to build Balch Hall to house just women, I applaud Cornell in honoring that gift even if co-ed dorms have since become more popular. I have given money to endow a scholarship for students in Arts & Sciences. I would be very upset if Cornell redirected that money “to loan forgiveness and mental health programs” and I would never give any additional money to Cornell. Many alumni have also given time and money to benefit specific fraternities and sororities. Fraternities and sororities inspire that degree of loyalty. The author should respect the judgment made by those donors. Although the donors are human and can make flawed decisions, the donors have a better knowledge of the Greek system than does the author.

  • Map4Territory

    The author uses vast generalizations in order to make their argument coherent. In order to make sense, the racism displayed by one fraternity has to implicate all fraternities. However, the author never explains how the actions of someone that I’ve never met, who belongs to an organization that I’ve never interacted with is somehow indicative of the values of myself and my friends. The author lumps all fraternities in with each other not because it’s accurate or appropriate, but because it allows them to criticize an institution who they have an irrational hatred towards.

    These generalizations are almost always used to justify hatred. It is the type of language that justifies racism by pinning the actions of one person on the entire race. We don’t ascribe to the author all the words and views of past Cornell Sun writers. Not to say that they should be unaware or not responsible for them, but we don’t condemn the author as having committed it themselves. Likewise, we don’t charge all Cornellians of racism because of the actions of one student. The idea that one person can act independently and in opposition to others in some ambiguous larger community is reasonable. The idea that no action is independent is not and requires a lot more mental leg work than the author has put in.

  • Jasper

    The author makes sweeping generalizations of fraternities and greek life in general. Every reason they provide for the discontinuation of greek organizations could be applied to students in any organization or in the general public. If these issues of sexual assault, racism and alcohol abuse are then not solely problematic of fraternities, what would abolishing them accomplish? Furthermore, does the author suggest banning any and all multicultural fraternities/sororities since they fall under the same organizational umbrella? What about pre-professional and/or business fraternities? Should athletics in college be removed due to their instances of sexual assault and alcohol abuse? Is the author actually serious that the only way an organization can help is to “liquidate and donate all their money to loan forgiveness and mental health programs,”?

    Maybe instead of suggesting a straw man misrepresentation of an institution the author is not a part of nor familiar with, Mr. Hagopian should address the issues inherent to college-age students at large, regardless of their membership to any particular group. But that would require doing more than simply marching around in a scarf holding a sign and writing copy and pasted ideas from the echo chambers they live in.

    • Alumnus

      I’d like to add on to this that a lot of athletic programs/band programs in universities, Cornell included (IE: Cornell men’s lacrosse, Harvard men’s soccer), have exhibited atrocious levels of hazing, along with sexual assault, alcohol abuse, and racist tendencies. Should we ban university athletics and music programs because a few of them around the country have committed terrible acts? Probably not.

    • Ezekial 23:19-20

      “If these issues of sexual assault, racism and alcohol abuse are then not solely problematic of fraternities, what would abolishing them accomplish?”

      This statement doesn’t seem all that sound. For example, racism is not SOLEY the result of the KKK, but abolishing the KKK would probably do at least something in the fight against racism. I think the key here is whether “sexual assault, racism and alcohol abuse” occur at a relatively higher rate in fraternities than in the student population as a whole. If that is the case then abolishing them would likely accomplish something in dealing with the above problems. I don’t know if the rate at fraternities is actually higher, but that seems like the crux of it.

      • Map4Territory

        The rate of drinking is certainly higher. I have read questionable studies that suggest the rate of sexual assault are higher. The incidence of racism is hard to measure but the evidence is largely anecdotal. The issue isn’t simply whether the rates are higher but rather whether the higher rates are caused by the structure of the fraternity. Fraternity brothers have no rights or privileges (using a strict definition of the word) afforded to them that other students on campus do not. Since drinking is the one thing we are sure they at a higher rate let’s examine that for a moment. Are heavy drinkers more likely to join a fraternity or do fraternities make people heavy drinkers? The arguments suggesting the latter have seemed weak in my opinion, but I am open to debate. If its the former, and the cause lies elsewhere, than we are merely dealing with the symptoms on an aesthetic level by attacking fraternities. In that case, the problem of alcohol abuse is as much caused by being in fraternity as being in Cornell.

  • John Plugger Mellencamp

    At least the name of the column is truth in advertising.

  • mma_ko

    Campuses would be better without all these associations – Greek, BSU, Latino, etc. These hamper assimilation and integration which you have to do in the real world. Before you criticize … think about the validity of my observation/statement.

    • Map4Territory

      I have considered the validity of your statement and find it lacking. Fraternities do not hamper any form of “assimilation and integration” that one does in the real world.

      Maybe you could elaborate more on the mechanism by which these organizations hamper them. Or provide more detail on what you mean by “assimilation and integration”

    • bigredalumnus

      Fraternities, sororities, independent living units, Daily Sun, Glee Club, etc. all accomplish something important—provide students at a cut-throat, impersonal, bureaucratic 20,000-student campus a place, a support system, a sense of community. In the case of fraternities, the sense of community and friendships last a lifetime.