By Laura Cowie-Haskell
The Ngoni tribe of South Africa functions by a hierarchy of complete interdependence. Although new members know that they will be dominated and subjugated to the lowest levels of social hierarchy; they still flock to join the Ngoni ranks. Why?
Because within this tribe they know that they will have a role to perform. They know that their role will allow them to belong. People subject themselves to complete interdependence because through dependence they find agency. Being a subordinate node in a large system is worth the agency they can garner through the feeling of belonging.
This was the example that crossed my mind when my friend going through recruitment (the process of joining a sorority) told me that she was told she would be “put in time out if she didn’t stop talking” today. My jaw dropped. Why would you ever do this to yourself? Was the question I had on my mind then and the one I’ve been thinking all week as recruitment progresses. I have to admit, I’ve been extremely judgmental. I am a judgmental person. Especially when it comes to hierarchical organizations based on nothingness rather than merit. I’ve been trained to think critically about structures of power. To ask the questions: Why does this exist? Why do these people have power? Why does the “proletariat” allow these people to have power?
If you’re not familiar with sororities, then you might be asking why is she talking about power? They’re just innocent ways to have a better social life, right? I wish that was the case but the process of recruitment shows how untrue that is. Recruitment is not about getting to know people, it’s about judgment. It’s about finding the people who will make you and your sorority gain higher social standing. Therefore, power. Did you know it works by a point system? You’re rated each day out of 5 points based on all the superficial judgments you can think of including appearance. “Hardly anyone ever gets a five” my friend tells me. What makes a person “desirable” is defined by the higher-ups and everything else is dismissed as deficiencies. It’s sad, but you can really use the analogy of a business proposal for a new product. Initially, a PNM (potential new member) is marketing herself as a new product to be sold. The business in turn doesn’t view her as anything else but the net worth she can bring to the industry. It’s sad because these are people we’re talking about. Complex organisms. You can’t sit down and write a comprehensive list of all the pros and cons of a person you don’t know like you can a commodity. Probably 2% of who a person is can be judged from surface interaction, the other 98% is way deeper, layers and layers deep.
Then there is the question of what even is desirable? and what ultimate goal are measures of desirableness derived from? On a macro level, the goal must be social status. More desirable people makes your sorority have a higher social status which lifts you up by association. Then on a micro level, the goal must be fun, right? The better people you have, the more likely you are to be friends with them, have a higher social status, and therefore the more fun you have. But if social status is measured by society as a whole, then by whom and how is it determined who is the best? Other sororities? General public? Fraternities? The University? How much your sorority parties? How involved they are? How smart you are? How kind? I could make the argument that fraternities play a large part in determining the sorority hierarchy by judgments such as partying and looks, but that would be another 4 pages. Anyways, the question of reputation brings up another issue.
Reputation is founded on generalizations. Sororities average 60-80 girls. A lot of individuals, right? Especially when membership is determined by random superficialness, there cannot be so much homogeneity that a generalization such as “the druggy sorority” or “the bitches” or the “weird nerdy” sorority (all judgments I’ve heard before) could be representative. But these reputations are very real. Which begs the questions is recruitment not as random as I’m claiming? Are sororities a conformist melting pot? Or, Do they actively work to maintain a chosen reputation that isn’t totally representative? Perhaps, all three are true, I don’t really have the answers. That issue was more food for thought than an argument on my part.
Like the Ngoni tribe, it could be possible that sororities exist to fulfill the human need for belonging and interdependence. It would be unfair of me to make judgments on our inherent nature. But like my judgments on the systematic violence of the Ngoni tribe, I similarly don’t think its unfair to raise questions about the execution of power within the sorority. Especially when I have multiple people responding to me by “I get what you’re saying, but I don’t see how there is another way to do it.” When you have people incapable of even beginning to question the way things are done, that’s when there is a problem. Historically, we have seen this over and over again (CoughCough Roman Catholic Church). Just because the idea behind the institution is innocent and believable, it doesn’t mean the way its realized is.
Yes, I as well would love to make new friends with similar attitudes, do philanthropic work, have events and parties, gain networking opportunities, and belong to a group. That all sounds marvelous. But what I don’t want is to be judged by people who are under the impression they have something over me because of their previous membership. Nor, do I want to feel wanted because I’m pretty or vice versa. Nor, judged on what I’m wearing, how much I smile, how well I can convince you to like me by talking about my major and the weather. I don’t want to be dehumanized by your expectation that I should suck up to you because you “belong” and I don’t. I don’t want to be forced to do ridiculous shit because you’re belonging gives you a power trip. I don’t want you to laugh at whatever I say even though it’s not funny because I’m “desired.” I don’t want to be forced to go to things or to pay a fine when I don’t. I don’t want to be given a “big” then be forced to pretend I like her after it turns out I don’t really.
Above all, I want to be myself. And I think sororities diminish that possibility; not completely, but enough. Self-expansion demands space and in that regard sororities are suffocating. So I’m at odds with myself in a way. I’m understanding the human need to belong but I am averse to the conformity and power structures it creates. I guess all I can do is hope that sorority girls know themselves well enough to join uninfluenced or take the time to do so beforehand. And once within the structure, are capable of questioning the powers at be and always know that nothing is worth jeopardizing personal integrity. I also want to end by saying this is not a personal attack on sorority girls. I’m actually sorry there is sometimes a degrading stigma surrounding that name “sorority girls” because you’re the same as every other girl. And that stigma is mainly a result of the sexist society we live in (and maybe judgers like me). But I just think its important to question any sort of structure that assumes the power to judge and command and make sure that intentions are good and benefits are plentiful. So that’s why I wrote this.