On the potential psychological ramifications of certain insular societies, or: that fraternity video in the news.

After N woke up from her nap, I strapped her into the jogging stroller and took her to the local playground.  Holding my hands, she stomped around while I dripped on her: a sudden blast of warm air from the south brought summer-like weather to our town today.  Then, after about twenty minutes of stomping, and thirty seconds of warily sitting on the swing, we jogged home, got the car, and drove to school to pick up K.

K told me, “You should write an essay about that fraternity video.”

I scoffed.  “Why?  I don’t think anybody who’s studied this would be surprised.”

“Then write that.”

So, voila!  I did!  You just read it!

But I suppose I could elaborate slightly.

CaptureFraternities are exclusive groups.  You have to rush to get an invitation to join a house, and for most fraternities you then have to survive some form of hazing.  Most fraternities have ostensibly done away with “bad” hazing, things like driving pledges to another town and having them find their way home, physical abuse, that kind of thing, but “party” type hazing, like sleep deprivation, or imbibing near-toxic quantities of alcohol, is still pretty widespread.  And most fraternities have induction rituals that resemble psychological conditioning, sloughing off the shell of childhood and family and emerging a brother and a man.

One consequence of these rituals is that people’s behaviors, at least within the confines of their house (where “house” can also include other physical locations if many brothers are nearby), can shift.  Like, you have people who weren’t bad dudes growing up, and aren’t bad dudes in class, and in all likelihood won’t be bad dudes once they graduate and move on with their lives, but who can act like total jerks during their time in the fraternity.  In a closed environment, there’s always that pressure to push things a little farther to impress your buddies.

2009-03-20_610_N_Buchanan_Blvd_in_DurhamI think the Duke lacrosse scandal is also a good example of this: closed group, they’d all proven their physical toughness to one another in initiation, practices, games, et al., but there was a constant pressure to maintain that edge.

And, sure, it was unfair that they were treated as though guilty of rape by the DA despite their being no evidence and hugely confounding factors in the initial accusation, but they had chanted obscenities like “n—–, n—–, n—–” and shouted “Hey b—-, thank your grandpa for your nice cotton shirt” at departing strippers whom they’d hired a portion of the “food budget” (huge quantities of money) they’d been given by their coach (as documented in William Cohan’s generally pro-player “The Price of Silence”).

Or you could read something like “Sexual Assault on the College Campus: The Role of Male Peer Support,” which documents some of the psychological factors besetting young men who spend lots of time in those all-male, insular environments like sports teams or fraternities.  The homogeneity of the groups, coupled with the intense pressure to prove your own self-worth, accentuates violence directed at outsiders.

NEXT0308ReevesOr you could read something like Judge Carlton Reeves’s speech to three young white men who beat a 48-year-old black man nearly to death before running him over with a truck.  Of particular importance might be the line:

“What is so disturbing… so shocking… so numbing… is that these n—– hunts were perpetuated by our children… students who live among us… educated in our public schools… in our private academies… students who played football lined up on the same side of scrimmage line with black teammates… average students and honor students.”

Point being, they weren’t bad kids.  Those SAE brothers in Oklahoma: they aren’t bad kids either.

Maybe that sounds weird.  Maybe it’d be better to phrase it as, they’re not much worse than average.  And, yeah, that statement would really impugn the average, but I think that’s fair.  Our average, in this country, is not very good.

I think this is the point of the essay where there’s supposed to be a pithy summary statement, but I’m not sure I have one.  How about, vile institutions can take a tiny seed of evil and help it bloom into a big ol’ bunga bangkai of hate.