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Frats and hazing: Symptoms of our big ailment, tribalism

FOR as long as I can remember in my life as a media man, newspaper headlines every so often would become dominated by news of some young man killed in a hazing ceremony by some college fraternity, usually those of law students.

After a few days, the issue vanishes from the front pages, nobody goes to jail, it was a terrible, unfortunate accident, the frats’ rich and powerful elders—top lawyers and politicians of the land—take care of the problem, and it is forgotten.

The public outrage dissipates. After all, college fraternities simply reflect the reality of what we pretend is the Filipino nation. We are a collection of tribes, not a nation. The frat is merely our newest form of a tribe that emerged and became prominent in colleges only since the 1980s.

Our loyalties are not to the association of 100 million people we call the Philippines, but only first, to the family, and then other forms of tribes – the clan, the gang, sometimes the corporation.

For many young men in college, it is the fraternity, especially in that period of their lives.

Tribalism is our one big ailment. Its opposite is called nationalism, the view that our most important “tribe” is the nation. Yet because of the West’s propaganda, nationalism is being dismissed by many today as an outdated notion. Compare the sense of nationalism our Asian neighbors have, and how their countries have grown, and you will understand our big problem.

From its pre-modern notion, the term “tribe” in modern society is used to refer to small, exclusive associations of people able to interact face-to-face, to which each member extends loyalty, service and personal sacrifice. The family and then its extension, the clan, is our first tribe. Fraternities in colleges have become for several generations of mainly law students, their second tribe.

Initiation rites
In pre-modern tribes, which still exist mostly in Africa and in the South Pacific islands today, membership isn’t automatic. A person born to the tribe is required to go through a strenuous, even life-threatening, initiation rites at puberty in order to be accepted as a member of the group. The National Geographic magazine was fond of reporting, and even filming such rituals: circumcision at puberty by the Xhosa people of South Africa, a hundred knife cuts on boys’ backs in a Papua New Guinea tribe, and believe it or not, a form of bungee diving (using vines as ropes) for a tribe at Pentecost island in the Pacific.

WHIP HIM UNTIL HE CRIES: Initiation ritual of the Fulani tribe in West Africa

So it is for our Greek-letter frats. Prospective members have to prove with blood, sweat and tears their loyalty to the brotherhood. As happened in the case of UST first-year law student Horacio Castillo 3rd, his body could not withstand the initiation beatings of the Aegis Juris fraternity he wanted to be a member of.

The benefit of being a member of primitive tribes of course is obvious. In the jungle, a man can’t survive without help from other members. In law colleges, the frat helps its members—especially those who aren’t street smart—to survive in college and to get through the rigorous schooling. A frat man never gets bullied by others. There have been reports that frats even manage to get exam questionnaires in advance. The frat is for all intents and purposes a frat member’s mentor and elder brother through college. After graduation, he immediately gets a job from the top law firm dominated by his “brods”.

The legal profession is supposed to be the vanguard of modern civilization, which is nothing but a body of laws. Not only that, laws embody the heights of human rationalism. It is ironic therefore that it is our lawyers who have developed fraternities in this country, and its rituals of life-threatening initiation.

It is our US colonizers and our elites that have been mainly responsible for our weak nationalism. They too are to blame for the spread of fraternities in the country.

College frats have been prominent only here and in the US. It was the sons of our elites, first at the University of the Philippines, who aped the famous Greek-letter frats of US Ivy League schools.

Oldest frat
The oldest frat in the country, Upsilon Sigma Phi, was organized on the same year in 1918, that the UP was established by a team of Harvard professors contracted by the US colonial government. Membership in the Upsilon became de rigueur for a career in law or politics: Ferdinand Marcos, Gerardo Roxas, Benigno S. Aquino, Jr. and Joker Arroyo all boasted of being Upsilon Sigma Phi “brods”. The legal profession became dominated by frats. Upsilon very soon faced a competitor, Alpha Phi Omega, set up as a chapter by the largest American fraternity in 1925. Many other frats were organized, in disgust over the snobbishness of those early frats.

As in many cases, the rest of the socio-economic strata naturally followed the practice of the crème de la crème of the ruling class. Starting in the 1980s, almost all law colleges had Greek-letter frats, and such associations were organized in colleges other than law, with many no longer having Greek-letter names. Even the underworld has embraced the practice of organizing themselves into tribes, with brotherhoods based on one’s region proliferating in our slums and in prisons.

If frats in elite colleges were the hybrid of gentlemen’s clubs and secret societies, those in colleges for the lower classes became the intersection of “extra-curricular” associations and street gangs, with tougher, deadlier initiation rituals.

Initiation rites in tribes, which frats have mimicked, were intended to symbolize the death of the novice as a child, and his rebirth as a man, and a full-fledged member of the group. In Castillo’s case sadly, his death wasn’t symbolic, but so real.

Frats in this country have hastened the decline of nationalism in this country, almost at the same time as massive migration of the middle-class and of professionals — even the best journalists — to the US and Canada did. Frats have become organizations to which the Philippine elite have given their loyalty and service, instead of the nation. What a sad country.