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 ahagopian@cornellsun.com. The Whiny Liberal appears alternate Fridays this semester.