In Defense of Elitism

The recent acquisition of a house on Mt. Auburn Street by the Sigma Chi fraternity raised the hackles of the Harvard community. Shouts of "The fraternities are coming!" echoed off the ivy-covered walls of this hallowed institution, and students cowered in fear of the imminent invasion of hordes of drunken frat boys. In fact, this school is so rabidly anti-fraternity that admitting you like them (or--gasp--belong to one) is almost akin to admitting to a loathsome disease.

Those who object to fraternities (and final clubs) usually do so on two grounds. The first is pragmatic: They're a bad element, they promote drunkenness and endanger women, and they fragment the campus social scene. The second is more fundamental: Single sex social institutions are discriminatory and elitist, and hence we can't condone them morally.

Those who argue on the first basis are right to some extent; some fraternities are filled with s.o.b.'s and really benefit no one but their members. But the vast majority of houses attract decent, everyday guys who are simply looking for a different social scene, and to stereotype all greek organizations is wrong. Additionally, individuals who misbehave while in fraternities are likely to be the types who will misbehave anywhere. A woman can be date-raped as easily in a dorm room as a fraternity house. As for the issue of campus life, fraternities can undoubtedly lead to some degree of fragmentation, but they can more than make up for it by adding new and enjoyable elements--such as large, open parties--that all can choose to either patronize or ignore.

Those who oppose single-sex social institutions on fundamental moral grounds are ironically adopting a much weaker argument. It is tempting to look at fraternities and final clubs and say, "Hey, they don't allow women to join [they're exclusive], and they don't accept people based on their personality [they're elitist]. How can we possibly condone that?"

The simple answer to this is that life is inherently exclusive and elitist. Every time you choose not to hang out with a person because you find him or her boring, or annoying, you are being elitist. Every time you plan a rough-and-tumble game of football and call only your guy friends, you are being exclusive.

A common counter-argument to this point is that fraternities and final clubs are objectionable because they institutionalize the unfortunate necessities of elitism and exclusivity. But again, the simple answer is that every institution in this world that is worth its salt excludes based on those characteristics that affect its mission. If you're stupid, you won't get into Harvard. If you can't run quickly, you won't make the Olympics. No one screams at these flagrant violations of egalitarianism, nor should they.

Most individuals within and outside of fraternities agree that the mission of fraternities is to provide a certain social scene to its members. If a fraternity house were to open itself to all men who wish to join, it would cease to serve its function. Similarly, adding women (or men to a sorority) would fundamentally alter the nature of the house's social environment, because of sexual tension and attraction arising from biological differences. Therefore, it is just as moral for a fraternity to reject any woman, or a male who the members feel wouldn't contribute to the social atmosphere, as it is for Harvard to reject someone with low SAT scores.

At this point, at least one reader is bound to be screaming that I have justified discrimination based on racial or ethnic characteristics. If a house's members can exclude someone because they dislike his manner, why can't they also exclude him because they dislike his religion or skin color? The answer to this is the logical converse to the point I made in the previous paragraph. While it is moral for an organization to exclude based on characteristics that affect its mission, it is immoral to exclude based on characteristics that are irrelevant. Hence Harvard's non-discrimination code; it would be wrong for the University, whose goal is to train scholars and citizens, to reject a qualified candidate simply because he or she is black or Jewish. One's race, ethnicity and gender have nothing to do with one's potential to learn or improve society.

Similarly, race and ethnicity--though not gender, for the reasons mentioned above--have no inherent capacity to affect one's social potential, and therefore are not justifiable grounds for exclusion from a fraternity or final club. (Although it is undeniable that in this less-than-perfect world, social choices are often made on such grounds.)

I am not arguing that we must all love fraternities, or that they are right for every college campus. But those who take the moral high ground in snubbing and condemning fraternities need to reassess their reasons for doing so.

David H. Goldbrenner's column appears on alternate Fridays.

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