This past Tuesday, police paid a visit to the Boston University chapter of Alpha Pi Epsilon. Responding to a noise complaint at the off-campus, unsanctioned fraternity, the Boston blue stumbled across five pledges, taped together and left for some indeterminate length of time in the frat house basement. At some point, AEP’s eleven current members had doused the pledges in chili sauce, coffee grounds, honey, mustard, hot sauce, flour, and empty sardine cans, shaved their heads, and forced them to drink a beer and sardine mixture through a gray metal pipe called “Bongzilla.” When police uncovered the pledges, they found the boys visibly shaken, uncommunicative, and their backs “covered in red welts and markings.”
The abuses uncovered at AEP this week are, it seems, nothing special – a continuation of a brutal drinking and hazing culture that leaves some participants unaffected but emotionally or physically scars many others. Last year, the family of George Desdunes levied a $25 million wrongful death lawsuit against twenty members of the Cornell branch of Sigma Alpha Epsilon after Desdunes drank himself into a state of deep intoxication on February 25, 2010. According to the family’s lawsuit, Desdunes clearly required medical attention, but, instead of taking him to the hospital, the brothers at SAE tied Desdunes up and left him on the couch. When some other pledges finally took him to Cayuga Medical Center, Desdunes was too far gone, having a reported blood alcohol level of 0.35 (a whisper away from the lethal level of 0.4) at the time of admission. To their credit, Cornell University has closed the campus’ SAE chapter.
While it would be unhelpful and inaccurate to claim that the Boston and Cornell cases are signs of some significant change in American culture, they are important touchstones in the current battle over fraternity life, hazing, and, most importantly, the culture of binge drinking. The modern incarnation of this decades-old battle took shape after Rolling Stone published the explosive feature article “Confessions of an Ivy League Frat Boy: Inside Dartmouth’s Hazing Abuses” on March 28. Janet Reitman’s article is an astounding look into the story of Andrew Lohse, a former Dartmouth College student who, having engaged in all manner of destructive behaviour in one of the school’s 17 affiliated fraternities, concluded that Greek life promotes a campus culture of substance abuse, sexual assault, and “intoxicating nihilism.” Most telling, perhaps, was Lohse’s description of the “true bro” at Dartmouth (aka, a Dartmouth man), who can drink “inhuman amounts of beer, vomit profusely, and keep on going.”
It is little wonder that the events that sparked the current debate about fraternity drinking should come from Dartmouth, the campus that provided inspiration for director Ivan Reitman’s classic ode to Greek life, Animal House. Dartmouth students are famously proud of their dominant fraternity and sorority culture, successfully shielding it from school administrators who have long struggled to tame those institutions’ powers. While the national trend over the last decade has been for colleges to close down affiliated fraternities, the conservative students and alumni of Dartmouth have vigorously resisted such efforts. According to Janet Reitman, Greek life is central to Dartmouth’s student culture, given the limited opportunities for amusement present in the hamlet of Hanover, New Hampshire. “Fraternities (unlike sororities, most of which are dry),” she explains, “happen to be the only campus entities that serve alcohol to minors, which about 70 percent of Dartmouth undergrads happen to be.” For undergrads looking for fun, fraternity and sorority parties are one of the few games in town, and the name of the game is “beer.” Binge drinking – defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as the consumption of five or more drinks in a two hour period – is not only part of but is central to the frat culture that makes up such a major part of Dartmouth life.
In her Huffington Post article “Hazing Confessions of a Dartmouth Alum,” Ravital Segal told her own experiences as a frosh, suggesting that Andrew Lohse accounts of alcohol-fueled chaos were not exaggerated. “I was struck by Lohse’s musing,” she explains, “that a student might die one day as a result of hazing. His sentiment gave me pause. Because I was very nearly that death.” Segal recalls that she looked to the Greek system in search of friends and acceptance, joining a sorority with no strong suspicion she might be expected to drink herself to death. One night, however, Segal’s sisters kidnapped her and made to chug “alcoholic punch that had been pre-prepared for each of us in individual 64-ounce water bottles.” The next morning, Segal writes, she woke up in the Intensive Care Unit at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center, restrained, intubated, cut and bruised all over her body, and missing two teeth. The doctor told her that she “had entered the hospital with a .399 blood alcohol content… literally one sip of alcohol away from dying.”
Now a social scientist by trade, Segal looks for answers as to why such presumably smart people as her pledge masters – these are people who were sharp and accomplished enough to get admitted to an Ivy League school – would threaten pledges’ lives with such seemingly malevolent behavior. She looks to Stanley Milgram’s work on peer-administered shocks and Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, both of which suggested that good people could be cowed into unethical or brutal behaviour. She concludes that the Greek system’s culture of alcoholic excess – rather than the particular actors participating in that culture – is to blame. It was “within the context of Dartmouth’s social environment,” Segal notes, “two intelligent and compassionate women commanded me to drink a lethal amount of alcohol. And within that same environment, I listened.” With a faint air of resignation, Segal concludes “I almost lost my life that day and, infuriatingly, nobody — and everybody — was to blame.”
While Segal and Reitman’s articles are in agreement on the general insidiousness of campus binge drinking, the two writers have distinctly different views regarding culpability. Whereas Segal sees the reckless alcohol use of Dartmouth students as the result of a general, campus-wide ethical corruption, Reitman envisions a culture of fraternal binge drinking that hold up the dominant campus culture of assimilationist classism, misogyny, and date rape. The choice between the two writers’ visions of fraternity and sorority culture is the choice between a regrettable but unavoidable world of Greek mini-tyrants and a dominant patriarchal culture of crazed man-children. These visions have troubling implications for the future and, more depressingly, the two outlooks are by no means incompatible.
The outcry against Reitman and Segal’s articles has been swift and fierce, as America’s Greek defenders (or perhaps we should call them a phalanx?) have leapt to the defence of their beloved institutions. Current and former Dartmouth students feel that outsiders, who couldn’t possibly understand the universal values passed along through the playing of Beer Pong, are ruining their cherished memories, unfairly labeling all frat boys as violent deviants. This has resulted in a number of remarkable responses from Greek enthusiasts who, against all common sense, feel they must defend hazing. One such response comes from Ariana Dugan, the author of “Why Dartmouth Should Not Abolish Hazing,” a piece specifically aimed at responding to Segal’s charges. While one could take legitimate issue with Segal’s willingness to generalize her personal experience as a universal truth, Dugan can only provide the limpest of counters. In fact, one might say that the title of Dugan’s article suggests she’s already lost the battle, as New Hampshire is one of 44 states in the country that has outlawed hazing. Dugan’s plea that Dartmouth not abolish hazing not only suggests the author’s superficial understanding of the central legal and moral issues at hand, but would, on a practical level, be tantamount to asking the administration at Dartmouth to break the law.
Dugan’s piece is one example of a general failure on the part of hazing and binge drinking’s defenders to justify their activities in rational, coherent, and intellectually honest ways. Such arguments always stem from an artificial conception of “choice,” the idea that teenagers – usually away from home for the first time, desperate for acceptance, and often misinformed about how brutal pledging may be – have the power to simply choose to walk away from their initiation (at the threat of mocking and a personal sense of failure) or never have to pledge in the first place. Dugan makes just this case when she says that, rather than abolish hazing, administrators and the public should “remind students that they have a choice about the values they choose, how they act on those values, and how to give others space to choose and act on their values.” From a political standpoint, this viewpoint – with its focus on formal rights, personal responsibility, liberty, and self-empowerment – makes a great deal of sense. From a sociological standpoint, as Segal’s article suggested, it doesn’t come anywhere near addressing the actual problem.
Former Dartmouth frat brother Snowden Wright has come closest to producing a legitimate cultural defense of hazing in his aptly titled “In Defense of Hazing,” first published in last Thursday’s edition of the New York Post. The article has a deliberate “exploding fist pump, bro” feel to it, beginning with an account of what Wright calls “the most beautiful thing I had ever seen,” two brothers inducing each other to vomit, an act one onlooker described as “like watching two kittens lick each other clean.” From his nauseating opening, Wright proceeds to defend the culture of hazing by describing it as some sort of Robert Bly-inspired performance art. “We took the antics of frat life to such an extreme as to make them camp,” Wright argues, noting he and his brothers “had voluntarily joined an organization in which we were asked to sit around a basement drinking beer until we vomited, all the while being able to quit at any time. Anything so ridiculous could only be a joke.” Wright’s rationale invests an enormous amount of faith in nineteen-year-old men to understand and contextualize their excesses as canny meta-commentaries on emerging adulthood. Perhaps, for that reason, it is not terribly convincing.
Jezebel’s Katie Baker took on Wright’s article in her own aptly named piece “Is it Possible to Defend Hazing?” She begins by summarizing Wright’s argument as “Hazing is a fun, friendship-cementing, and —most importantly — voluntary experience.” Baker is very skeptical of this interpretation, noting that “once pledges are far enough into the process, it’s hard to say no when everyone else is game — the reluctant ones get called ‘”pussies’” by guys like Wright who genuinely enjoy, say, induced vomiting.” Baker also rightly points out that the illegality of hazing means that fraternities often hide their actual hazing intentions “because the brothers don’t want to scare potential members away — or implicate themselves in an illegal practice — by openly advertising what really goes on.” To Baker’s mind, the main problem with hazing is that it does not provide the requisite opt-outs for pledges that Dugan suggests, but instead uses a combination of peer pressure and irrational escalation theory to keep pledges going. Baker’s article implies, ultimately, that hazing-related binge drinking is a necessary mechanism of power, allowing established frat brothers to emotionally manipulate prospective members.
Baker makes some interesting points, but much of her argument mirrors Segal’s and does not satisfactorily address the larger cultural draw of collegiate binge drinking. Her argument decontextualizes acts like drinking to excess or inducing others to vomit, taking them out of the larger culture that has framed such acts in the public mind as seeming joyous and loveable. The 1978 box office hit Animal House – a movie based on the exploits of Dartmouth’s Alpha Delta house – turned constant keggers and John Belushi’s bingeing – a characteristic excess that would lead to his real-life death four year later – into one of the most endearing and nostalgic depictions of college life. Since then, movies like Van Wilder and Accepted have gleefully celebrated the alcoholic excesses first fleshed out in Animal House, projecting positive sentiments toward binge drinking into the minds of high school student who see in these films their future nostalgia. The images of popularity and sexual proclivity are epic and beguiling to oh-so-many frosh who feel uncertain on both fronts. These films suggest that even someone like Flounder can achieve true, unconditional acceptance, a fact that helps us understand the continued culture of alcohol-related self-destructive excesses found on college campuses.
Most of the issues surrounding binge drinking and hazing in campus Greek life are settled by now. Despite Ms. Dugan’s claims, hazing will remain officially banned from the campuses of all New Hampshire universities in compliance with the law of the land. Moreover, despite the claims of FraternityInfo.com that binge drinking is “NOT what we are about,” and that “these practices are occurring outside of the knowledge of the national organization,” the nearly-settled science actually shows the exact opposite. One of the defining features of frat life is the opportunity to, and the celebration of, drinking to excess. What does remain unclear, however, is what’s to be done about it all. Given that all of the principle pundits of this piece seem prepared to ignore the fact that it is illegal for most freshman, sophomores, and juniors to drink liquor in the first place, we should perhaps turn our attention to how we might encourage safer, more responsible cultures of alcohol use. That hardly seems to be the direction of this debate, though, as the sides are pitted in a fight over the value of excess, a ludicrous conversation given that excess is, by its very definition, “too much.” In fact, the debate over Greek binge drinking has become a microcosm of American debates over “freedom” and “personal responsibility,” framing discussions of hazing in the same way we might talk about automatic firearm ownership or DDT use, cloaking a clearly harmful practice in the semi-legalistic language of “rights.” The question is clearly not whether people have the God-give “right” to binge drinking or hazing (they don’t) or whether tradition is sufficient justification for upholding acts that are harmful to the community (it’s not), but we can’t discuss the real issues until we change the language of the debate.