A recent editorial in the Wall Street Journal, by Caitlin Flanagan, has one of those titles that pretty much sums up her thesis: "Shutter Fraternities for Young Women's Good."
Flanagan describes fraternities as "providing [young men] with a variety of he-man activities: drinking, drugging, ESPN watching and the sexual mistreatment of women," and refers to its members as a "boorish cartel."
Her opening example, which describes how a young student in 1984 was drugged and gang-raped by fraternity members at the University of Virginia, is horrifying. No one believed the student then. It took 20 years -- and an unsolicited (if weak) confession from one of the men -- for her to get justice. In fact, until the trial, she had not had any evidence she'd been gang raped. She'd lived for years having to proceed as though she'd been raped by only one man, and ultimately, only one of the men was convicted.
I've written before about my own background as a fraternity member, back when I was an undergraduate, and I'll confess that my first reaction to Ms. Flanagan's article was defensive. I thought she was going too far, much as many of the readers commenting on her article online have suggested. I was one of several nondrinkers in my fraternity, and one of many who saw the fraternity experience as a way to build deep bonds with fellow human beings, engage in philanthropic work, and enrich an intellectual college experience by adding to it a study of principles and values. I was never (and still am not) much of a partier. My primary role at such functions was wallflower (during) and designated driver (after). I thought, and continue to believe, that organizations for young men can save them from their tribal and savage instincts, endowing them with civilization and morality.
But I had another reaction to the article: I was angry. Not at Ms. Flanagan, but at the men in fraternities around the country who are drugging and raping women, chanting "No means yes. Yes means anal!," and otherwise acting like brutes. The brute in me would like to see them hanged. (The civilized part of me might insist on a trial first.)
It's taken me a while to sort through those conflicting emotions, to make some sense of them.
Are fraternities worthy groups deserving of protection, or houses of horror that ought to be closed?
Answering this question requires some understanding both of young men and of group dynamics. Some observations:
1. Untamed young men are often disorderly, violent, and hypersexual.
2. In aimless groups of peers, led by other untamed brutes, young men tend to engage collectively in destructive, deviant, or criminal behavior. We see this in everything from street gangs to the rape and death squads of developing nations in civil war. Group polarization is part of the problem here: Most of our instinctive behavior is based on what we think normal is. People tend to become more extreme when the people around them are extreme, because the sense of "normal" shifts. Young men who might otherwise be only inclined to grope may, in the presence of someone raping (and no one objecting), go further. Men who might be inclined not to participate at all might cheer. Men who might normally be inclined to object or rescue might stand mute. That silence, in turn, throws more fuel on the fire. Now the cheerers begin to grope; the rapists start looking for sharp objects. Few things in life are as terrifying as a mob in spiral.
3. However, in the right kinds of groups, ones that provide moral leadership and codes of behavior, men can learn to channel their energies toward the defense of a community and its values. The codes and role models provide a moral compass. The sense of "normal" becomes codified and resistant to spirals. In such environments, men can learn to become husbands, fathers, guardians, protectors. Although results may have varied, the chivalric codes and bushido, codes for knights and samurai, respectively, were aimed at such a result -- at taming the savages in the community and turning them into protectors and role models for young boys. That we have historical accounts of unknightly knights doesn't mean the codes were meaningless, but rather that in some areas or instances those codes were forgotten or unenforced; human beings, women included, have a disturbing tendency to view traditions as funny, expendable, or highly malleable and subject to creative interpretation. An unenforced code is little more than graffiti. Whatever their mis-steps, without such codes, Europe and Japan likely would not have developed as they did. A community without such codes is hard to distinguish from 1994 Rwanda.
Fraternities can be the right kinds of groups, if fraternity leadership hews to the virtues that most such organizations espouse, if senior members act as role models, if the larger community insists that they do so and enforces society's laws, if all parties collectively condemn not only rape but the precursors of rape: groping, drugging, talk of rape.
If members behave ignobly, they should be stripped of membership, prosecuted by the law, and, I mean this part seriously, held in dishonor. Quaint as it sounds, honor is the key to all such codes. Public shame is a better deterrent to poor behavior than whipping. The stocks are a better tool than the electric chair. (Arguably, one of the most destructive developments of the last 50 years has been America's campaign to protect the privacy of wrongdoers. The skyrocketing rates of academic dishonesty of late can, for instance, be traced back to the death of the honor codes of old: In the past, a plagiarist was identified publicly. People knew what he'd done. That had a pronounced effect on behavior. Schools can't out their cheaters, by law. But a fraternity can publicly denounce a former member as dishonorable, and should.)
However, without guidance or enforcement, a fraternity is little more than a disorderly peer group with a funny name.
Which brings me to my complicated reaction to Ms. Flanagan's article.
Fraternities not already doing so need to step it up. They need to take their codes more seriously, and not simply see them as things that pledges have to recite while standing on their heads. The founders of those organizations meant them. They put thought into them. Codes matter. Without them, the fraternity is not really a fraternity, but an impostor. Fraternities need to work with their communities -- and the women in them -- to channel young men in productive directions.
Fraternities that refuse to do this, that remain unguided brute-led rabble, do need to be shuttered.
A fraternity that's functioning can be a good thing, providing focus and direction for young men who might truly need guidance -- but a malfunctioning fraternity is far worse than none at all.