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Sunday, August 28, 2005


I recently finished reading:

And I have to say, it's actually much, much more interesting than one might initially suspect. It essentially follows the lives of four girls, three of whom are in one sorority and one of whom is in another. Judging from some comments made in the prologue (and the fact that the author looks like this:
presumably  she went 'undercover' and rushed the sororities in question (or in some other way ingratiated her way into the sorority life.) Interspersed with the narrative of the stories (following through the course of a year), are discussions of sorority-oriented issues. Things like alcohol use, hazing, the national organizations, and the difference between 'white' and 'black' sororities. There were just a few problems with the overall message the book portrays.

Most of these can be summed up in the conclusion, where the author blatently states, <b>"They [sororities] must be willing to change." She then lists a number of changes that she believes ought to be altered in order for sororities to be brought into repute.

Sororities ought to 'reform rush' or, alternately, 'reduce rush'

Largely, the problems the author has with the rush process are the perpetuation of certain stereotypes. Namely: pretty, rich, blonde, and white. She believes that, by becoming insular, these groups are perpetuating a divisiveness that is harmful to the public good. She repeatedly notes, throughout the conclusion and elsewhere, that sororities wield a lot of influence. Where this influence is to be seen, I frankly have no idea, and her characterizations of sororities as de facto social networks I find somewhat silly. Most of the examples she uses date back a couple of decades at least, and are limited to the deep south. Does she really believe that an African-American or American Indian who is part of a sorority is going to be accepted by 'polite' society in Louisiana, just becuase she happened to have membership in this organization? Most suppositions that can be refuted by an episode of the Simpsons shouldn't make it into serious academic discussion. As with the Stonecutters of Season 2, Episode 9 - if a set of people wants to exclude others from their social circle on the basis of some arbitrary but easily detectable factor, they will do so. Either by marginalizing them within the group (a phenomenon the book itself accurately portrays, even with someone who is not intentionally being sidelined) or creating other groups to which those undesirables will not be admitted.

The reforms she does put forward are things like eliminating rush, and having basically open membership. Which is interesting, but would almost without question lead to the same end with less organization and less honesty.  She also recommends that rush be postponed until "at least after the first semester of freshman year." This is an awful idea. Rush is one of the best events that a campus can have in the first or second month - primarily because it allows a lot of people on campus to meet a lot of other people in their age group. Rush is something a lot of people do, even without any desire whatsoever to join a fraternity or sorority. They do it because it's fun and it allows someone other than school administrators (who are totally inept at creating fun events for kids) to organize socialization among recalcitrant freshmen, while at the same time keeping the fun limited to a specific scope, and area, with organizations that are ultimately beholden to the administration.

The author ends the section with something rather catty. She opines, "The kinds of girls who would no longer rush sororities because they would no longer feel an elite superiority are not the kinds of girls who would keep sororities honorable and with noble purpose anyway." The problem is, that sororities (and, I would argue, other exclusionary groups on campus - such as honor societies and even club level sports, in which I participated) are by nature going to get more members, and more desirable members, by creating a level of exclusivity. This is true even with dance clubs and bars. The places it's harder to get into attract a more attractive, and typically, more affluent clientele. If sororities want to have a membership that is of a higher quality (and she never really puts forth an argument as to why they should not) then they get it this way. Even if you took the check of the sisters in a sorority making guided decisions, I would bet that if each sorority just randomly picked from their pledge class, they would get a better quality than if they had open enrollment. This is the thing that differentiates a sorority from a dorm.

Sororities ought to abolish 'hazing'

This is interesting, since everybody outside of these organizations tends to believe that hazing is incontrovertably  bad. When a story broke a few years ago that there was some intense hazing going on at the Citadel, people were incensed. Putting our soldiers through hardship? But who wouldn't want a field officer who had never experienced fatigue, hunger and dehydration? I mean, just because these conditions will invariably come up during the course of leading soldiers in combat, that doesn't mean they should be prepared. And indoctrinating military officers with a strict adherance to sometimes arbitrary chains of command? Preposterous. Yet throughout the country, there was an uproar of opposition over the practice of hazing. The national legislature (in addition to a myriad of local and state legislatures) drafted legislation banning the practice of hazing, whose definition is so broad as to include practically anything aspiring members might have to do to attain membership. Making copies or posters are activities, for example, that are (in the broadest interpretation) proscribed by the law.

The obvious rebuttal to this is going to be that college sororities are different environments than a military academy. And this is partially true: most Upper East Siders or Orange County denizens will likely never experience battlefield conditions. And yet, so what? Hazing works. If groups are made to experience hardship together, they bond much more quickly than if they do not. This is just true. Three weeks of experiencing mild discomfort and a level of sleep deprivation, doing stupid, meaningless tasks means that after those three weeks, the people involved are more likely to feel close to one another, as well as the group with common experiences. There's a reason sports fans, a group of millions, can all feel somewhat close when bonding over their favorite team: because shared experience is the touchstone of any close relationship. Even if those experiences don't have a commonality because the two individuals actually had the same sensations, they still form a groundwork for the individuality of two people to overlap.

This is especially important in groups that are going to work closely together. Sports teams where new recruits are hazed (which, by the way, happens in the NFL to little complaint) are going to work better together. Even within a team, the offensive line will haze new linemen and afterwards, they can work better together as a unit. It builds trust. In ancient Sparta, the first three years of adulthood were basically just hazing ritual after hazing ritual. People died during those. But the Spartans were the most fiercely loyal and nationalistic city-state in the Greek penninsula. The Athenians, by contrast, were a bunch of squabbling children who let their city get sacked because everyone had his own agenda. Sororities, where you have hundreds of girls living in close proximity, many of whom have not, ahem, "shared" their space intimately with others before - hazing for three weeks saves three years of hellish interaction.

As an aside, if hazing were really as bad as all that, why would girls join sororities knowing that they are going to be hazed? Some might take it too far (the book mentions a practice of leading girls out into the ocean, hands tied and blindfolded, which might be a touch overboard. No pun intended?), endangering the actual safety of the girls. But there's a fertile middleground between banning hazing as a practice and making sure it's safe. In fact, since the ban, hazing has simply become more secretive - and hence less prone to oversight.

Sorority members drink excessively

The author perpetually conflates correlation and causation. She keeps comparing the sorority population to the general student body, and drawing erronious conclusions about sororities as a result. For example, she notes that a higher percentage of sorority girls drink 'excessively' as compared to the general collegiate female population, and attributes this to the party atmosphere sororities foster. I found this odd, as elsewhere, she notes that one of the primary reasons someone would join a sorority is admission to exclusive parties. I would bet $50 that if you compared the sorority population to the nonsorority population who rushed you would find that they are comperable in this regard. Someone who rushes is, almost by definition, someone who is more outgoing than the general population - and hence, more likely to have been popular in high school, more likely to be interested in partying, and so on.

She also notes, with a nod of approval, that certain campuses have forced sororities with university affiliation to go 'dry.' This is the stupidest thing a campus can do. As alluded to above, once you do this, rather than having parties that are overseen by somewhat responsible individuals who are, at least potentially, beholden to the university - you get parties that are in other off-campus locations held by... whoever. By reducing the number of safe areas that college students can drink, an administration effectively increases the number of students who turn to less safe means. When, for example, certain universities have banned alcohol from sporting events - students just pre-game, binge and drink more alcohol than they would have, in a shorter period of time.

A college administration will never stop students from drinking. At Villanova, a dry campus, they found that there is a higher incidence of student consumption of alcohol than at Haverford College, which is nearby and not generally regarded as "sober." Which is to say, they're a bunch of lushes. But the Villanova kids just have fewer ways they can safely drink, fewer campus resources that will allow them to get help if they drink too much (in fact, if a student gets alcohol poisoning in university housing, they face probation or expulsion. Nice incentive to try to suck it up instead of getting your stomach pumped, huh?)

A few other thoughts. The author perpetually writes with a tone of disdain towards the very idea of having women in a university atmosphere who are pressured to look attractive, who are pressured to dress in a provocative or fashionable manner, and generally speaking, who exclude others who are not like them. This is a common, socially accepted position to take. In most 'educated' discussions, if one makes disparaging comments about the so-called "Mean Girls" they will meet little opposition. It's taken as granted that the rich ought not fraternize, the attractive ought not form cliques, and that any group that is homogenous is necessarily bad.

I'd like to note, of course, the hypocrisy - she speaks glowingly of all-black sororities and groups that seek to include only those of a certain GPA, both of which are basically analogs. But that's not the point. The author goes to great pains to emphasize that making appearance an important part of the social pressures of one's life is bad. But honestly, why? She says that it induces eating disorders - all well and good, but the extreme of athletic competition and trying to stay ahead of the curve include overtraining, steroids and other undesirables. That doesn't mean that the pressure to excell at sports is bad. Nor does it mean, I should hope, that the physical gifts that each athlete have ought to be immaterial in deciding who plays for a team. It's possible that the quantifiable aspects of sports are comforting, whereas the qualitative aesthetic in being hot is something we don't want to encourage the persuit of. I don't see why.

I have a pet theory (that was actually more expansively typed up below), and this is a tangent, that the reason people are so comfortable with certain biological advantages in others (intelligence or mathematical prowess seem to be generally accepted and most are relatively unthreatened by them) and not with others (the primary one being looks) is they know, deep down, that they could change one. People are more comfortable with others having things, be they material goods or characteristics, that they know they could never attain. No matter how hard little Suzie studies, if she don't got the biological material, she'll never be Newton. However, when it comes to physical attractiveness, there is a large measure of control. A person could go to the gym, alter their diet, and so on and so forth. The fact that they don't want to, and hence resent those who do, tends to become a part of the apprehension. So we brand people as "shallow" who openly put value on physical beauty, and say that they should prefer people who are "deep" or something, even though the latter is much more beyond the control of a person than the latter. Also note that, 99 times out of 100, the reason an individual is complaining about attractive people being "shallow" is because an attractive person they desire is unwilling to give them a shot. Just saying.

In any event, this sort of segregation is both healthy and natural. Suppose that a sorority takes to heart the advice given by author. They include less attractive girls than under the status quo. Then assume, improbably, that cliques don't simply form within the sorority (a reality that the author observes time and again). The attractive group is going to be concerned with dating and attempting to date an entirely different class of guys than the unattractive group. All this would do is succeed in alianating the unattractive group, and draw further attention to their utter uglyness.

Another major flaw in all of the reasoning the author uses for egalitarian reforms, is that the sororities (as noted) tend not to really associate with anyone except fraternities and other sororities. Damn near every story she puts forth, and every characterization and anecdote, involves sorority sisters interacting with each other, other sororities, or other members of the Greek community. Every time a nonsorority member has contact with the sorority girls, it's voluntary and never seems to be without prior personal understanding. That is to say, as sororities are voluntary groups, and seem to be insular, any problems that exist harm nobody except other consenting members.

The author proposes that administrations provide other options for girls. Things that will group them by interest, possibly not even excluding males. Interestingly, the college I attended had hundreds of these. They're called 'student groups.' And if you want to live with a group? Move off campus. Or get dorm rooms on the same hall. All of these are alternatives that encapsulate all of the desires the author has. Sorority life is not for everyone. But nobody is forced to join, and at the end of the day, if people want to be in a more inclusive, less party-oriented group, they can be.

None of the problems she talks about are unique to Greeks (actually, most of them sound like the same 'problems' that plague college campuses in general) and none of the solutions she offers work. It's an interesting book, but the overt preaching the author offers as prose is just unnecessary and distracting, as well as unrealistic.

The bottom line is: people are a certain way. College students are a certain way. You can wish all you want that things were different, but if you acknowledge the realities, these organizations are probably the best result you can hope for.

cranked out at 11:36 AM | |

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