This is a post I’ve wanted to write for years now but never have. I thought that writing it would result in my ostracism from society at Northwestern. I no longer think that that’s the case, though even if it were, I don’t really care. So here it finally goes.
First, here are some premises on which I’m basing my argument:
- Just because a particular system has certain positive qualities or results does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
- Just because there are individual components of a system that are exemplary does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
Just because a system benefits those who are part of it does not mean it is good for society as a whole.
- Just because a system does not cause certain issues, does not mean that it does not create an environment that allows these issues to continue.
- Just because the Greek system has some positive qualities and results does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
- Just because there are individual Greek chapters that are exemplary does not mean that the overall system is not broken.
- Just because members of Greek houses benefit from the Greek system in certain ways does not mean that the Greek system is good for college campuses or for society as a whole.
- Just because the Greek system does not cause issues like binge drinking, sexual assault, eating disorders, racism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, and other forms of discrimination, does not mean that it does not create an environment that allows these issues to continue. As I’m going to argue, creating such an environment is exactly what it does.
It won’t be possible to understand (let alone agree with) the rest of my argument if you do not understand these premises, so make sure to read them carefully before trying to shoot down my argument.
- Greek organizations have a long and illustrious history of discrimination on the basis of race, class, appearance, religion, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and, obviously, gender. Whether or not they continue to do so today–and this is a subject of much debate–I don’t believe that one can support such a system without ambivalence.
- The very nature of a Greek organization lies in its exclusivity–the social power of current members to accept or reject prospective new members. Exclusivity has the effect of making something seem more desirable than it actually is, thus skewing potential members’ reasoning for joining Greek organizations. At a time of life when young adults should be learning how to base their self-esteem on internal rather than external valuations, the Greek system tells college students that their worth on campus is based on the arbitrary judgment of a group of older, cooler students. Desperate for validation from their peers, students are often devastated when they fail to get into their top-choice house.
- They lack diversity–not just racial, but mental. Every existing psychological study on the subject shows that, when given the chance, people will choose to associate with those whom they most resemble. This means that Greek organizations are essentially doomed to put similar people into boxes together rather than exposing them to diversity, because that’s how human psychology works. This is why it’s often so easy to stereotype particular Greek houses–the “awkward” house, the “douchey” house, the “slutty” house, the “Jew” house, the “prep” house, the “jock” house, and so on. Although stereotypes are usually overgeneralized, there’s usually at least a bit of truth to them, because birds of a feather flock together. And I think most people would agree that we go to college to meet people unlike ourselves, not to stick to what’s most comfortable. As regarding gender, some research suggests that spending lots of time around people of the other sex is healthy. If men lived together with women, for instance, they might gain a better appreciation for how sexual harassment and assault affects women, and perhaps they would be less likely to, say, march around campus chanting “No means yes, yes means anal.” But in Greek culture, men and women interact mostly in a drunken setting, which doesn’t exactly promote dialogue.
- On a related note, Greek organizations judge potential members by superficial factors. Yes, yes, I know, they all claim not to judge people by appearance. However, how on earth do you decide if you want to live with and be emotionally close to a person after making small talk with them for a few minutes? There’s something wrong with this. Even if they’re not explicitly picking people based on appearance, they are picking them based on their ability to seem cool or otherwise socially acceptable, and in my opinion that is superficial. (I often hear the argument that people are picked for Greek organizations based on “social skills,” which are invaluable for adult life. This may be true. However, I also oppose discrimination based on “social skills.” There will be a future post on this.) Regardless, this isn’t even to mention that many Greek houses, particularly sororities, do explicitly judge people in a nasty, catty way. I know of a house at Northwestern that passes around a plate of cookies to potential recruits, and automatically disqualifies them if they take more than one.
- Most of the recognized benefits of Greek organizations, such as camaraderie, networking, and philanthropy, could easily be achieved through other avenues. College campuses are distinct from the rest of the world in that they provide nearly limitless outlets for making friends, giving back to the community, and advancing your career. Anyone who claims that they “need” a Greek organization to find these opportunities is either lazy or brainwashed. See Premise 1 above–although Greek organizations certainly have some good qualities, I do not believe that these qualities justify their continued existence.
- A Greek organization relies on psychological manipulation to forge a bond between its members. If you think the purpose of hazing is to provide some entertainment for older members, you’d be wrong. Or at least partially wrong. Undergoing physically or emotionally grueling situations is known to increase emotional connection between members of a group. That super-tight bond you see between members of a Greek organization isn’t a coincidence, and it was achieved unethically. Not all Greek organizations haze, but many (if not most) do–in fact, a recent study shows that at least 90% of students who have been hazed do not believe that they have! An eyebrow-raise next time a Greek member proudly tells you “Oh, we don’t haze” may be warranted.
- By definition, Greek organizations discriminate against transgender, intersex, genderqueer, or otherwise non-gender conforming people. While activists are fighting to establish a vision of gender that includes more than just “male” and “female,” Greek organizations, unlike most other social clubs, are still gender-segregated. Although Greek organizations will often claim to be accepting of trans individuals, what happens when a member of a Greek house decides to transition? Or, better question–what about people who do not identify as either male or female?
- Greek organizations elevate social life above academics in terms of importance. I’ve witnessed professors tripping over themselves trying to schedule exams and other academic events around Recruitment, Rush, and other Greek events. I’ve witnessed mass outcries on campus because a chemistry exam coincided with Gone Greek Night. This is ludicrous. I don’t know when college students began to assume that they have some sort of God-given “right” to certain social opportunities at college. You have a “right” to an academic education. Everything else, you need to seek out on your own.
- Greek organizations promote an old-boys’-network style of career advancement. Many Greek organization members proudly tell me how helpful their chapter is in connecting them to alumni and job opportunities. But since whole point of going to college is to have access to such opportunities, it’s fundamentally unfair that certain students receive more access just because they were cool enough to join a social club. No, the Greek system didn’t cause nepotism–refer to Premise 4 above–but it does promote it. As I see it, there’s enough inequality in the world as is. We should not be institutionalizing it in our universities.
- One word–groupthink. When your entire life revolves around one organization, this creates an environment in which nobody can publicly disagree or “cause trouble.” In Alexandra Robbins’ brilliant investigation of the Greek system, Pledged, she describes how sorority women refused to let one of their sisters accuse a fraternity man of raping her because their sorority and the man’s fraternity were partnered in some way and they didn’t want to compromise the relationship. This also partially explains why sorority women (sometimes) allow each other to barf up their meals, and why fraternity men (sometimes) allow each other to sexually assault women–they’re afraid or otherwise unable to speak up. Although these problems are thankfully not as prevalent at Northwestern as they are at other schools, having your entire social life controlled by one organization is never a healthy thing, because it means that you have to keep your problems to yourself or face social exclusion.
- They are financially prohibitive to many (if not most) students. Yeah, yeah, there’s financial aid available. But that doesn’t erase the problematic fact that one should never have to pay money to have access to friendship. Given that Greek houses also provide access to career-related networking and, on occasion, academic resources of dubious ethicalness, the fact that all of this comes at a price of hundreds of dollars a semester is just another way that class divisions are perpetuated at universities. Furthermore, membership in a Greek organization requires a sizable time commitment, and students who have to work to pay their way through college often (not always) cannot commit to it.
- Greek organizations promote binge drinking. There’s not much to say on this point. Even if nobody’s literally shoving alcohol down your throat, many Greek events come with the expectation that one pregame and/or get drunk. Much like sexual assault and eating disorders, this is the sort of issue to which Greek organizations love to pay homage by having special events about how to drink safely, etc. However, unhealthy drinking habits are entrenched in Greek culture. This is another great example of Premise 4 from above–while college students are certainly going to drink no matter what, examples like Europe show us that binge drinking is absolutely not unavoidable. It’s quite possible for young people to drink in a safe and healthy way. But Greek organizations are helping to keep the binge drinking tradition going strong.
- Although most Greek organizations do not encourage or promote sexual assault, eating disorders, discrimination, or other issues, I believe there is something inherently wrong with a system that has still produced so many examples of dangerous, violent, and/or prejudiced behavior. It’s certainly wrong to stereotype all Greek organizations as being hotbeds of this sort of stuff, but we need to seriously ask ourselves why it’s happening at all. Every time one of these terrible incidents hits the news, a Greek member is always quoted as claiming that this is “an isolated incident.” Then why does it keep happening? (For instance, at least one student has died of hazing-related injuries every year since 1970. Where’s the outrage?)
- The strongest moral argument for keeping Greek organizations around–philanthropy–is fatally flawed. First of all, as I mentioned in item 5 above, one does not need to belong to a Greek organization in order to participate in philanthropy. Not only are campuses absolutely full of philanthropic events of all kinds, but it really isn’t too difficult to find such opportunities on one’s own. Second, with the exception of programs like GreekBuild, the sorts of philanthropic events that Greek chapters tend to have basically consist of people paying admission to some fun event. Why not just call it what it is–a fun event–rather than pretend that the whole purpose was to be charitable? Furthermore, throwing money at a charity rarely solves actual societal problems. What helps is meaningful, time-intensive contribution to an actual cause. But it’s hard to find that kind of time when you’re too busy partying and hosting bake sales.
- Another major argument for the Greek system–tradition–is just, for lack of a better word, stupid. People love to pay homage to tradition. I know plenty of people who found it very important to join the very same Greek organization that their parents did before them, even if it’s at a different school. Alumni would probably have heart attacks (or roll over in their graves) if the Greek system were abolished. But why? Why do we need to keep around an outdated system that originated in the 19th century? Somebody give me a good reason. Why don’t we create a new system, a new tradition? Why don’t we create a tradition of improving the social climate on our campuses rather than keeping them the same as they were decades ago? When someone pulls out this argument, you know they’re just grasping at straws–when you ask “Why?” and someone answers, “Because,” you know they have no real reason.
Finally, some caveats. Do not accuse me of these things, because you will be wasting your time.
- I have nothing against individuals who are involved with the Greek system. I don’t judge them. I wouldn’t emulate their choice, but that’s as far as it goes.
- I have never been involved with Greek life in any way, not even Recruitment/Rush. I have never been rejected from my favorite sorority since I’ve never wanted to join a sorority. Nevertheless, I’m involved in many campus groups, have plenty of great friends, and have an active social/dating life. Therefore, the reason I oppose the Greek system is not because I’m “just jealous.” (To those who are unfamiliar, this is a common claim Greek organization members use to try to delegitimize arguments against the Greek system.)
- I fully respect the experience of anyone who claims to have had a wonderful time in his/her own fraternity/sorority. However, as you can see in Premise 2 above, just because there are some great Greek chapters does not mean the overall system is healthy and just.
This is the bulk of my argument against the Greek system. I hope I have shown that even when the Greek system benefits its own members–which it does not always do–it is a mostly negative force in society as a whole. The positive things about it, such as philanthropy and fun, could easily be achieved through other means, and the negative things about it cannot be repaired without completely altering the Greek system as we know it.
I believe that universities should be, and have the potential to be, spaces of equal opportunity for advancement. I believe that they can be melting pots of people with different backgrounds, lifestyles, and opinions. I believe that they are places where people can grow both intellectually and psychologically, and begin the process of becoming confident, self-motivated individuals. I believe that universities have the power to change themselves for the better, and that they can work to solve the various issues they currently face, whether concrete like binge drinking and sexual assault, or abstract like lack of intellectual openness. I believe that the Greek system undermines universities on all of these counts, and many more.
Resolved: the Greek system is unethical and should be abolished.