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Fraternal Nihilism

The number one form of hazing at Dartmouth isn’t the harmless, small-H hazing or the aggressive big-H hazing perpetrated on fraternity pledges that Andrew Lohse so memorably described. Rather, it’s unsolicited self-hazing, the weekly “self-abasement in a basement” that takes place during Greek house meetings. This is the rot that threatens the soul of fraternities at Dartmouth and the future of Dartmouth’s Greek organizations.

Every Wednesday night on campus at a variety of Dartmouth fraternities one can find varsity team captains, service organization leaders, editors from The Dartmouth, intellectuals, writers, musicians, and actors gathered in a large room for their weekly meetings. All are full brothers with equal rights, responsibilities and standing. Some will choose non-participation and no alcohol due to the demands of homework, athletics or for personal reasons — and they will suffer no social ostracism. However other brothers may engage in any number of bizarre rituals.

Some brothers may stand over trashcans and compete to drink as many beers as possible until they vomit, in a contest known as “doming.” Perhaps they’ll vomit in the can at the end of the game — or on one another. “Roxanne” is a game where two sets of brothers face each other and drink beers repeatedly until vomiting on the opposing pair. There are other derivations like “Boot in the Suit” which involve members “booting” (vomiting) into the clothing worn by another student.

These gross stunts aren’t all that creative. Members choose beer, urine, or vomit, and adjust the volume and personal proximity accordingly, perhaps with an appropriate seasonal theme.

For them, these rituals hold the moral equivalence of an arm-wrestling contest. There are laughs and groans, but few are shocked and surprised; after all, this is just another weekly meeting with its stunts, political incorrectness, and buffoonery.  And to be fair, these activities are not the “main event” of most fraternity weekly meetings; just a sideshow amidst the drinking, jokes, stories, and games.  The point is this: the hazing over which administrators wrung their hands this past spring is absolutely dwarfed by the number of gross and silly acts that many brothers voluntarily perpetrate upon themselves every Wednesday night.

They do these things for the thrill and the bonding when they severely flout social conventions together.  Perhaps most importantly, they can publicly display their personal sacrifices for the house in order to gain credibility.  Of course, the next morning you will likely find the same people debating Aristotle or the merits of Neo-Keynesianism in their classrooms.

This is nihilism and self-compartmentalization writ large, and there are numerous cultural underpinnings to this behavior. Dartmouth students are well regarded for their utter lack of pretentiousness. “Not taking yourself too seriously” is a cardinal virtue for many students. Libertine attitudes towards promiscuity, drugs, and alcohol preclude group judgments as to what individuals do with their own bodies. And even though the vast majority of fraternal life is not about disgusting stunts and drinking, I suspect that these traditions serve to delegitimize fraternity leaders’ more meaningful aspirations. Can one be a True Gentleman or build better men in this environment? Remarkably, many of Dartmouth’s fraternities still do, despite the self-destructiveness that runs so deep within them.

When a full class of Dartmouth men finally rises to the occasion and decides that such stupid behavior serves no purpose, we can hope to see it disappear. Every fraternity is different; some have few problems, while others may take years to progress. In general, fraternity men must find better ways to build brotherhood and signal their commitment to one another.

Addendum: An alum adds a comment:

Please tell me why, in the days before co-education and the D-plan, Wednesday night house meetings were not like this at all.  A real meeting, followed by a little conversation, and then back to the dorms (except for a very few seniors who lived in the house).  If there was any drinking, it was 1-2 cups to finish off the last (stale) keg from the prior weekend… which had involved a lot more consumption, no denying that.  We played on the weekends, but not in the middle of the week.

I wonder if the College has tracked the evolution (devolution?) of fraternity practices over the decades?


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