Frats I

When I did Theater in High School, we had some pretty weird rituals. One of those rituals was the “Ritual” (it had another name, but since someone who goes to the program might conceivably read this, I’m going to go with “Ritual”). The exact nature of the “Ritual” was a closely guarded secret. It was spoken about in hushed voices by cast members, and the uninitiated were told that would all partake in the Ritual on opening night.

I still remember my first Ritual. When opening night came, the men in the cast gathered into the men’s dressing room (the chairs had been cleared in order to make room). A small speaker set was plugged into the wall, and one of the upperclassmen was fiddling with his iPod. Another upperclassman stood at the far side of the room, his face solemn. In his hand was a potato wrapped in duct tape.

With much ceremony, he extended his arm, and the potato was held at the center of the circle. The other upperclassmen all put their hands on the potato and indicated for the newbies to do the same. I put my hand atop the pile of hands atop the potato.

Then the speakers began to blast a very particular song by Limp Bizkit.

I won’t describe the rest of the Ritual, except to say that it involved huddling around the potato, tossing the potato from person to person, moshing, and kissing the potato, and ultimately dunking the potato into a tin, where it would say until the following night’s Ritual.

And here’s the thing about the Ritual.

It. Was. Awesome.

Like, seriously awesome. And it felt awesome. After we were done abusing that potato, we were pumped and ready to put on the show. My understanding these rituals are pretty common in theater programs. They passed down through the generations, sometimes modified, evolving as members cycled in and out, and I think they serve a valuable function. No matter how much drama there was leading up to the show, no matter what interpersonal conflicts arose as two dozen hormonal teenagers spent their afternoons and evenings locked in rehearsals, the Ritual pulled us together as a troupe at the moment it counted.

The fact that kissing a potato while moshing to Limp Bizkit can do this, I think, says something profound about human psychology.

My mind has been drawn to this particular experience in High School Theater by recent discussion of fraternities. Fraternities seem to be lightning rods of criticism lately. In the most recent news cycle, it was because some of the brothers at the University of Oklahoma released video of brothers reciting a racist chant. In the past, it’s been sexual assault, underage drinking, and hazing. I think a lot of this criticism is well deserved. I was quite happy to spend my four years of college at a school where frats were very easy to ignore, and I’m content to say that that ignore them was exactly what I did.

That said, there are two things that cause me to pause when I hear criticism of frats.

The first is that, without fail, the overwhelming majority of the brothers I’ve known personally have been pretty decent people. This may be in part because I don’t bother to get to know the assholes. But I do think that it is incorrect to characterize any organization with Greek letters in its name as a den for misogynistic, binge-drinking dudebros.

The second reason is, that I have a very vivid memory of how awesome it was to kiss a potato. Which is another way of saying that I have fond memories of my time participating in the oddball, tight-knit community that surrounded High School Theater, and I see many parallels between that experience and the experience I imagine makes fraternities and sororities and enduring part of our college experience, despite the best efforts by some to have them regulated.

Let me elaborate on that second point. I think that, a lot or the problems you see with frats spring from the same sort of group dynamic that produces potato kissing. The drive to create tight-knit communities explains why there is hazing in fraternities. I think it also explains a lot of the performed racism and at least part of the binge drinking.

There are obvious criticisms to this—if you compare kissing a potato to any number of fraternity initiation rituals, it’s clear which one is “responsible” and which ones aren’t. But my view is that, when you’re in the moment kissing the potato, the fact that it’s a “responsible” ritual is the last thing on your mind. Potato kissing wasn’t chosen because it was “responsible”, it was chosen because it had tradition behind it. It was chosen because it had been passed down through the troupe from class to class, generation to generation, since time immemorial. This is presumably also why frats choose their rituals.

Of course, it’s worth pointing out that if our rituals had actually involved risky behavior, I surely believe that our drama teacher would have told us to stop in a heartbeat. Or at least change it to something less risky. Her oversight was what prevented these rituals from getting out of hand.

One might argue that similar levels of oversight are needed for frats. But the oversight of the drama teacher was certainly not the same as the sort of “administrative oversight” that is often demanded for Greek life. We knew our drama teacher; we worked with her on a day-to-day basis, and more importantly, she knew us. We trusted her to make reasonable judgments and intervene in student affairs only when it was necessary. I suspect that this is not the sort of oversight that a University administration would provide.

The second important difference is that we were high school students, not adults. Of course, it is abundantly clear that adult behavior needs some oversight—that is, after all, why we have a police force. But I do think that community life is harmed when outside force intervenes unnecessarily.

What would intervention accomplish?

There are two basic aims in regulating frats—reducing harm to the members of frats and reducing harm to the surrounding community. The first goal seeks to tackle the problem with hazing and (to a lesser extent) binge drinking, while the second seeks to address problems like sexual assault, racism, and this sort of thing.

In general, I think I agree that frats need some regulation1. If people are falling off of buildings in a drunken stupor and women are routinely being assaulted and raped in Greek houses, this is a serious problem.

But once we have accepted that premise, the challenge is to find a form of regulation that does not somehow undercut the benefits of being part of Greek life. I think that critics of fraternities either dismiss or underestimate the magnitude of this challenge.

To illustrate what I mean, let’s go back to my high school drama club.

One quarter during my senior year, we decided that we wanted to put on the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The troupe was psyched. We got the principle to sign off (what magic our drama teacher used to make that happen I will never know). We had auditions, we even had a cast list. I was contemplating what it would be like to wear fishnets on stage.

But then one parent found out, and that was that. No more Rocky Horror.

The following day, our drama teacher gave a firm, but resigned speech about “picking our battles”.

Basically, my point is that the positions of theater programs in public schools is always precarious . Perhaps this is different at elite private schools where the arts programs are supported by alums and parents. But at public schools, the arts programs are first among “groups that don’t have institutional power”. They sort of have to fold if anyone so much as looks at them sideways.

Frats, with their connection and wealthy alums, clearly don’t have this problem. I sometimes imagine what it might have been like if my theater program was more like fraternities in that respect. That is to say that it was well funded, respected, and had enough clout to operate without oversight.

Some of the problems that happened in the theater program may have been worse. But let’s face it. It also would have been really, really awesome. Imagine, having a theater program that could self-govern and didn’t have to answer to beg and scrape for funding, or have our shows shut down if we tried to do anything remotely ambitious.

So that’s why I feel like frats might have an interest in protecting their autonomy that goes beyond their right to debauchery. There is a lot of value to be gained from being a part of a group that can self-govern. You can do more things, and the things you can do are more interesting. People have more opportunities to learn and grow in these communities if the communities themselves are less-regulated.

One might argue that frats are not a good place for people to learn and grow. But on that count, there are thousands of alums who disagree, and I’m not inclined to argue with them. If I can testify to the value of my theater program (potato-kissing and all), they can testify to the value of their fraternity.

1: Although I will acknowledge that actual claims about the negative impacts of frats are remarkably difficult to substantiate, as there’s no way to compare sexual assault at “universities with frats” to a “universities without frats” without introducing a whole lot of confounders.

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