Branding in fraternities — much like paddling, elephant walks, and raising a goat for a semester only to decapitate it on initiation night — is one of those classic, mythical hazing techniques that leaves everyone on the outside wondering if it really goes down. It does. Sometimes. But not like you might expect.
At its most professional, branding is performed in a dark room with lit candles by a man in a robe, the deed usually done after the recipient recites some sort of oath. At its least professional, it is done on a drunken night by a handful of brothers who crudely twisted a metal coat hanger into the vague shape of a Greek letter, heated it with a torch normally reserved for hash oil, and dared each other to press it into their bare ass cheeks (I had some particularly wild brothers who did it on the chest).
Most commonly, however, it won’t be done at all. It will just be heated in front of a pledge class by an educator with a challenging look on his face before he asks for a volunteer. Once the pledge drops trough and braces himself, the educator will chuck the brand in a bucket of water — the pledge’s willingness to do it will suffice.
A few days ago, we got a hot tip about a Vine of a University of Nebraska-Lincoln Phi Kappa Psi member getting branded on the dookie maker. You’ve probably seen the clip by now, but if not, here you go:
The Vine was emblazoned on the news feeds of people across the world, prodding the subject into the national spotlight. As with any widely published instance of fraternity debauchery, the video launched the typical condemnations of our culture: toxic masculinity, peer pressure, dangerous traditions, the evils of hazing, etc.
But the guy who received the brand says it was no big deal. I agree.
First off, he was an initiated brother — not a pledge. Second, he took the hot metal on his own accord. In an interview with Omaha.com, he said the act was entirely his idea.
The student in the video, who is no longer enrolled at UNL, told The World-Herald that getting branded was “completely his idea,” although he didn’t purchase the brand with the fraternity’s letters. It happened in 2014 when he was a freshman. He had already been admitted to the fraternity when he got the brand, he said, so it was not connected to any initiation.
“Personally, I just don’t feel like this is a big deal,” he said.
This is the case with most instances of branding. Still, the rest of the fraternity is facing disciplinary action from the university — and possibly police involvement. A psychologist and hazing expert named Susan Lipkin argues that even though it was his idea, he was unable to distinguish choice from persuasion given his age and circumstance.
“The question is, ‘Would you normally go out and do this, or are you doing this to prove something?’ ” Lipkins said. “The rhetoric is, ‘I had a choice.’ But I don’t know if at this point in their lives they’re really able to distinguish this.”
So, basically, he was peer pressured without verbal or physical peer pressure. The mere presence of his brothers caused him to fling himself into “harm’s way.” They forced him to do it with their psychic frat bro powers.
My biggest problem with the public perception of branding, however, is the unfairly targeted outrage.
National Panhellenic Council fraternities have always done it. UNL has an Omega Psi Phi chapter that I’d be willing to bet has branded every single brother on initiation night. Taking hot metal to the upper arm is a rite of passage for them. They probably walk around with their sleeves cut off and their big, scarred omicrons on proud display, too. This is the case for Omega chapters at most universities.
Don’t hit me with that “NPHC fraternities do it in a safe, controlled environment” argument, either. Burnt flesh is burnt flesh. A brand is a brand (unless you do it with a coat hanger, which is a great way to contract a nasty infection).
I don’t bring this up to knock NPHC fraternities for branding. It looks badass and I think it’s a genuinely cool tradition. I bring it up to point out the fallacy in the arguments of administrators and critics who are condemning the men of UNL Phi Kappa Psi.
I only ask that, given the information, the university gives a good second look at their decision to discipline the fraternity..