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In light of the recent news about SAE’s dismantling of its traditional pledging process, I imagine that many of you are likely worried about the future of the fraternity system, and rightly so. Given the legal issues that have plagued fraternities the last few decades, I think it’s safe to say that old ways of doing things are definitely on their way out. The liability of traditional pledging is simply too great for a national organization to take on in the current climate of litigation in our country. So, you can either resign yourself to the fact that the wonderful, secret traditions of your fraternity are going to simply vanish, or you can do something about it. For my pledge brothers and me, along with thousands of other chapters of various fraternities around the country, it means taking our most treasured pledging traditions underground. For us, there were two types of pledging: what we told administration we were doing, and the things we did that were “off the books.” Secrecy has always been the hallmark of fraternity culture, but in this scenario it became even more important. It was tricky and often difficult, but here are a few rules we tried to abide by that kept us safe.
1. Don’t Fucking Tell Anyone
The number of fraternity guys who get a few drinks in them and start flapping their mouths about what they did or what they made their pledges do is, in the words of that guy from the meme, too damn high. I’ve never understood why guys brag about pledging, especially to girls. I’ve never once witnessed a girl be so impressed by how hard a guy’s pledging process was that she immediately decided to sleep with him. If anything, it makes you come off as a try-hard, and it actively works against you. Sure, it’s fun to have pissing contests with other fraternities to argue about whose process was harder to get through, but ultimately, are you going to change anyone’s mind? No one has ever left one of these impromptu debates saying, “You know what, the guys over at [fill in the blank house] really are tougher and cooler than us.” It’s fine to chat casually about stuff you did without filling in specific details–just know that any time you give an actual detail, it will be spun off into a rumor immediately. There will be enough rumors floating around about what you guys do behind closed doors already without your help. Keep your fucking mouth shut. Especially you, pledge.
2. Choose Your Pledges Wisely
I have always been of the opinion that small pledge classes are superior. There were 42 guys with me on Bid Night, which dropped to 36 by the time we were inducted. Even that was too many, in my estimation. The actives above me later told me they knew exactly who was most likely to drop, so none of the guys who de-pledged surprised them. So why did we take them? Because on paper, it’s better to take bigger pledge classes. You’re automatically more likely to be better at intramurals, philanthropies, and parties, and general, daily life is better with a huge chapter. But you know what’s better than all of that? Taking only high-character guys. I know, I know, your chapter is the exception. You guys are so cool and so well-respected, you’ve managed to take 60 pledges every year, and all of them are the highest quality guys in their class. Right. For the rest of you non-delusional people out there, just hear me out. It’s better to take a smaller group of guys and have a higher grade of membership than it is to be large for largeness’s sake. However, I know that making the decision to cut your pledge class in half is a huge deal. In this case, you should consider having a smaller group of pledges that you choose to participate in the more nefarious traditions of your fraternity. We had a small subset of each pledge class that was inducted into an elite group. These were guys who were sought out for their high character, devotion to the process, fun personalities, and general ability not to be pussies. Most importantly, however, they were also the ones most likely to keep their mouths shut about what they did.
3. No Paper Trail
I’m using the word “paper” very loosely here. As we’ve seen in the last few years, nothing is truly protected. Forget the NSA–even the average person has the ability to gain access to private Facebook groups, email chains, and text messages if they have enough knowledge and motivation to do so. It astounds me how many off-book pledging activities are still arranged with an official schedule of events. If you’re doing something that has the potential to get you into trouble, DON’T EVER WRITE IT DOWN. Humans have an astonishing ability to record information in their brains, so fucking take advantage of that. Everything important and possibly incriminating should be proliferated by word of mouth. Will this lead to miscommunication and some confusion every now and then? Sure. But it’s a hell of a lot better than losing your charter.
4. Protect Your Officers
Note that I didn’t say, “do stuff behind your officers’ backs.” You elected these guys for a reason. They have experience, they’re responsible, and they have a good sense of what’s good for your chapter. However, because of this, they’re now the faces of your fraternity, and they’re much more liable, both legally and as de facto representatives of your chapter with administration. They’re the ones who have to go to Greek council meetings, closed-door conferences with administration, and most importantly, they deal directly with nationals. Whatever it is that you guys aren’t permitted to do that you chose to do anyway, don’t put your officers in a position that makes them have to choose between protecting the fraternity and protecting themselves. Give them casual updates off the record about what you’re planning on doing, and if something happens to go wrong, get them involved immediately. But most importantly, give them deniability. The easiest answer to give to an inquisitorial body is, “I have no knowledge of this.” Rumors are always going to be rumors until evidence surfaces. Until that moment, do your best to allow your leadership to be truthful when concerns are brought to their attention by outside authorities.
5. Don’t Get Too Crazy
I’m putting this one last because I want it to sink in. There are certain things that fraternities used to do, and that some continue to do that are just stupid. Whether they’re dangerous, degrading, our just downright weird, some pledging activities should just objectively never occur. I’m not going to go into detail–you know what kind of stuff I’m talking about. Pledging is about building character and brotherhood, not about utter humiliation and the exercising of casual sadism. Many traditions, however, are hugely beneficial to the pledging experience, despite their questionable legality. However, the mental aspect of pledging is far more important than the physical. There will always be rumors of heinous activities that your chapter may or may not be participating in. You should always foster these rumors, if not actively spread them. You don’t want your pledges to ever feel like they’re on solid ground. So no matter what banned traditions you decide to continue on in secret, always make sure that there are dozens of scarier activities hanging over the pledges’ heads. The only thing worse than having to do something scary and difficult is the threat of never knowing when or if you’ll have to do something scary and difficult.
Welcome to the underground, boys.