Monday, March 3, 2014

“The Bright Power of Fraternity Men: Redefining Masculinity”

There has been quite a wealth of articles and conversation coming out around the concerns of the American Fraternity system. Most notably, The Atlantic recently published Caitlin Flanagan’s piece “The Dark Power of Fraternities” in which she presents a year’s investigation of social and cultural trends within Greek houses and the liability that lurks behind the walls. Within a brief period, Flanagan captured the attention of individuals and organizations both inside and out of the Greek community. If you have not done so already, I highly encourage you all to read Flanagan’s article as she outlines very real concerns for our Fraternal men and undergraduates at-large.

In developing my thoughts and reactions to what immediately seems an attack on the Greek system, it is crucial for me to understand my background and how this affects my perspective. As an undergraduate student, I spent three academic years as a brother to the Washington & Jefferson College chapter of the Alpha Tau Omega National Fraternity. For those of you who have already observed the aforementioned article, you will recognize that this is the same National organization that Flanagan referenced within the first sentence. The poor publicity for Alpha Tau Omega continues with Flanagan later noting a fall from the University of Idaho house during the 2012-2013 academic year. My connection to the anecdotes do not stop there as she briefly makes note of a fall at a September 2013 fraternity party at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where I have served as Graduate Assistant since August 2013.

With my connection to at least two of the entities noted, as well as the love and respect I have for my own fraternity experience, one would expect me to quickly take the role of defender to the Fraternity system. That’s not the case. Caitlin Flanagan is correct in every word. There is a culture of liability engrained within the walls of many fraternities across the country. Sexual and physical assault remains evident, hazing continues to be a concern for every administrator and potential new members, and unintended slips and falls will never completely be eliminated no matter the preventative measures by institutions, students, or national organizations. Lets stop debating the pros and cons of fraternity life. We cannot sit down with the statistics of philanthropic dollars raised and number of sexual violence reports and decide on which overshadows the other. Placing a quantifiable value on each positive and negative action to prove our stance is not only impossible, but harmful to the overall discussion.

My concern with this article, and frankly many stories in the media reporting on reckless and harmful behavior within fraternities, is not the negative attention. My concern is that we are not focusing on the appropriate issues. Fraternity houses and organizations are not the cause of sexism/sexual misconduct, racial discrimination, physical violence, homophobia, etc. as they have no fundamental values rooted in such harmful practices. The concern comes from the men who are entrusted to represent those organizations. We need to be asking ourselves why our undergraduate men are behaving in a manner that directly opposes the values they agreed to uphold when initiated into their organization.

From birth we are telling our boys that the essence of masculinity is to be strong and aggressive, athletic and cunning, composed with our emotions, and physically appealing. To be a man, we are to be a god on earth, the Adonis we see immortalized in unhealthy pursuits of masculinity. Boys grow to learn that men cease to have dreams. Financial stability and securing the future of our families—or destroying our bodies and minds in the process—defines our legacy. Furthermore, we are to protect this manhood from anything—and anyone—at all cost. We are providing our boys and young men limiting narratives that equate social capital and power with domination over others. I firmly believe that as we see the media continue to highlight the negative stereotypes and tragedies associated with our fraternities, we are witnessing first-hand accounts of the harmful realities that arise from our traditional thoughts on masculinity, brotherhood, and youth.

When we are developing a dominant culture of masculinity and an educational system that seem to directly oppose one another, we begin to understand behavior. The reality is that many men are not personally invested in the values of higher education (or any level of academia for that matter). College campuses, and fraternity houses most notably, then become a breeding ground for men to enact the culture we have long since prescribed on our young boys. This collegiate space can be a potentially hostile environment for our male students who are told they as individuals (not boy culture at-large) are a root cause for destruction of self and others. This dis-empowerment of our men only perpetuates the negative behavior we read about in pieces like Caitlin Flanagan’s “The Dark Power of Fraternities.”

There is a silver lining to all of this, however. Not only at Emerson College and MIT where I am employed, but across the nation, fraternity men are actively engaging their brothers and their peers outside the Greek community to redefine what it means to be a man. The majority of our young men―as the majority of all men are not perpetrators of these behaviors―are growing tired of themselves and their male peers being understood as "the enemy of the state." Their hopes are to raise awareness around issues of sexual assault, binge drinking, and lack of development and academic motivation. Not because they are atoning for the sins of the past, but but because they are invested in this redefinition and the future. With each new recruitment period, we move closer to a culture that embraces multiple forms of masculinity and espouses the love and respect that is central to the values of fraternity life. As internet blogs and comments are calling for an end to Greek life, it is now more important than ever to recognize the appropriate place these organizations have in dismantling our notions of masculinity. We must empower our undergraduates and allow them to be more than the “frat bros;” instead, rise to the worth of fraternity men.

Mike Prinkey is a Graduate Assistant (GA) to the Office of Fraternities, Sororities, & Independent Living Groups at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as GA to the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs & GLBTQ Resources at Emerson College. He is in the last semester for a Masters of Higher Education Administration from Northeastern University. You can contact Mike through:
Twitter: @McPrinkey

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