American Cultland: Greek life enculturating debauched robots

A searing look into the heart of American frat culture.

American Cultland: Greek life enculturating debauched robots
Midjourney Art, Reivin Alexandria

Automaton That which is self-moving, or has the power of spontaneous movement, but is not conscious.

In her in-depth, often funny and deeply disturbing piece in the Atlantic from 2014 on the topic of fraternities, Caitlin Flanagan traces the origins of American fraternities back to Union College of upstate New York in 1825. She repeatedly references the notion that colleges at that time were seminaries and conducted under the auspices of monastic discipline.

This is a remarkably stark contrast from the present condition of most universities. Particularly, the large state schools that seem to primarily be in the business of wealth transfer from the legion undergraduates, and their parents to the university administration. Nominally in exchange for a degree whose value is increasingly tenuous.

Looked at from an anthropological perspective, this elaborate system resembles other examples of initiation rituals of a society's youth into full-fledged and enculturated adults. However, our mass modern culture has some important aberrations. Let us examine these within the confines of the typical fraternity.

If one is poorly versed on the goings-on of a modern fraternity, please allow me to enlighten you with representative resources and my own experiences. In my case,

I will offer a caveat by acknowledging there are many positive aspects of fraternities and many good people who join them. For many, they’re a necessary developmental step. However, the often-dark realities of fraternities and their culture-shaping dynamics are immediately prescient to the making of Automaton citizens.

Fraternities lure their pledges into a sadistic process rife with abuses that cannot be justified. The pledges are made to vomit on each other, and ingest heinous concoctions such as a gallon of milk and raw onion. They are locked in basements, thrown down stairways, and drink copious and occasionally deadly amounts of alcohol. They can be made to do oddly homoerotic and homophobic things such as an “elephant train” by which pledges are made to grab each other’s penises from behind and form a circle. If any of the members should become stimulated or aroused, he is then humiliated and kicked out. 

There are also equivalents on the sorority side of the equation. They tend towards social bullying and ostracization. They also have their own version of sexual humiliation such as forcing pledges to sit on a vibrating dryer while watching porn, then having an inspecting ‘sister’ check one’s panties for signs of arousal.

These and many other acts of humiliation are endured over a semester, ostensibly in the name of winning a lifetime friendship (that you pay for). The promised land on the other side of this lengthy ordeal: parties, drugs, alcohol, access to hookups with the hottest girls or guys, a valuable network post-graduation, and tremendous job opportunities from alumni.

Mind you, dear reader, this is for the on-campus fraternities. For the off-campus types, these ‘organizations’ devolve into gangs. There are organized fights, heavy drug use, sexual assaults & rapes, etc. All purportedly in more dangerous (less supervised) and intense ways than the methods I described previously.

In addition, these festivities take place often in grungy, dilapidated houses that are not up to code. I’ve seen the entire floor shake several feet as several dozens of partygoers danced. I’ve seen the colloquial ‘juice’ (Gatorade, fruit punch, and spirits) being made in grime-encrusted bathtubs, which was then garnished with crushed Xanax (known as ‘bars’).

This stark and gothic picture of the de rigueur of our nation’s premier social organizations is critical to understanding our current polarization. This entire dynamic is the making of automatons. From Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score:

“Many traumatized people find themselves out of sync with the people around them. Some find comfort in groups where they can replay their combat experience, rape, or torture with others who have similar experiences. Focusing on a shared history of trauma and victimization alleviates their searing sense of isolation, but usually at having to deny their differences: members can only belong if they conform to a common code.”

Seen in this light, beyond the bravado and chauvinism, with a sober eye, what do we get? Rampant promiscuity and objectification, gang violence, blatantly cultish indoctrination, functional (or not) alcoholism, sadism, and the like. All couched in the language of eternal friendship and guaranteed success. These organizations are deeply embedded financially and culturally in the institutions that purport to give our young people the best means by which to develop themselves into full-fledged individuals.

In fact, they are being taught brutal lessons of totalitarianism and conformity. Indoctrination is responsibility. Abuse is friendship. Dissipation and lasciviousness are the height of living. And so, many hundreds of thousands of automatons are born per year. While they develop their skills as professionals and citizens within the auspices of the liberal arts tradition, they are also possessed by deeply toxic socialization, breeding a corrupted enlightenment. Like a star in a solar system, these organizations have their own gravitational weight that bends individuals and society alike to their influence.

With 85% of Fortune 500 executives and 76% of Congresspeople and Senators as alumni of Greek life, is it any wonder that our leadership class seems hesitant and unable to actually lead? I think not. Instead, we have seen the dramatic pull towards poles of fanaticism on both sides of the political spectrum. How if they are practiced over a lifetime they would manifest in very ugly ways on political and cultural levels?

Dear reader, I think not.

Matt is a freelance creative, entrepreneur & writer.  He’s particularly interested in combatting totalitarianism in all forms and enabling human flourishing on a peaceful planet. He’s had the honor to serve in the Army reserves, loves hikes, Muay Thai & believes “Walking in Memphis” by Marc Cohen was the peak of human culture.