Barbarians

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(Note: This piece was first published a few years ago in the e-zine Archipelago.)

It’s not one of the earth-shaking puzzlers of Philippine life in this century, but a question outsiders looking in still ask whenever someone dies in either a UP fraternity hazing or inter-fraternity war: why should a young man with his entire life before him, especially a scholar, risk serious injury or even death for the supposed privilege of fraternity membership?

UP, for those who don’t know much about the Philippines, is the University of the Philippines. It’s a state university acknowledged to be the best in the country, to which vast numbers of ambitious young men and women apply every year-among whom, however, only a few are eventually admitted.

UP is also home to several Greek-letter societies or fraternities, the concept of which was imported from the United States during UP’s early years. Founded in 1908 by the US colonial government, UP was for decades even after the US relinquished formal sovereignty in 1946 a virtual copy of US universities, with their ring hops, hay rides, and yes, fraternities and sororities.

The fraternity concept, however, underwent a sea change somewhere along the line, primarily in terms of most fraternities’ involvement in campus violence, both in their initiations as well as in the “rumbles” that have become synonymous with fraternities.

So pervasive in fact is the identification of violence with fraternities that to them as role models may be attributed the proliferation of groups that call themselves fraternities but are actually little more than street gangs in the poorer, working-class areas surrounding Manila’s “university belt,” where dozens of fifth-rate colleges and universities are concentrated.

The subliterate members of these gangs, mostly drawn from out-of-school youth but including students from “diploma mill” high schools and colleges, apparently see in the fraternities of their alleged betters in UP only the violence, which they, too, can dish out a-plenty and which therefore makes them the equal of any car-owning, clean-cut UP scholar. Among these “fraternites” are in fact groups that include women as members (!), whose memberships are often premised either on their acceptance of physical violence or sexual abuse-the hirap (beatings) or sarap (sex with the male members of the “fraternity”) choice women are offered in these gangs.

Yet fraternities are not supposed to be about violence and exploitation but service, Greek-letter societies supposedly being special organizations of either the bright or the privileged who are in a position to contribute to the University. Over the years whatever service they have provided has steadily receded into the background, however, fraternities being pictured in the minds of non-fraternity members-or “barbarians” as fratmen disdainfully refer to them-as groups of club-wielding neanderthals ready to beat each other’s brains out. Fratmen are, in the public mind as well as among the vast majority of non-frat members in UP, the real barbarians, or worse.

This image has been nurtured, however, less by the frequency of hazing-related or inter-fraternity rumble deaths than by the often sensational circumstances that accompany such deaths. Those that have occurred over the last few years have invited media attention because they happened in UP, the students of which are perceived as future leaders of government, industry and the professions.

There is also the fact that some of the dead have belonged to the UP elite in terms of scholarship and high grades. Dennis Venturina, a student of public administration who was killed in a fraternity rumble in 1994, was a graduating student who was a candidate for honors. Alexander Miguel Icasiano, the public administration student (again!) killed during a hazing last August 16, was also an exceptional student.

Why such promising young men should in the first place join a fraternity, thereby risking life or at least limb during initiations that they know are violent, as well as in inter-fraternity confrontations, has been attributed to fraternities’ meeting “real needs.” One of these has been identified as the need to belong, which implies the hankering of immature minds for the anonymity and unanimity of the herd, as well as the relief from the burdens of thought an authoritarian organization (fraternities are not democracies) offers. Fraternities in short offer something, though on a lesser scale, a church or a political organization like the Nazis offer, and which the home cannot provide.

They offer more. In feudal Philippines, where beyond what you know is the greater imperative of whom you know in order to succeed, fraternities provide a network of support and patronage from fraternity alumni in strategic positions in government, the professions and industry.

The young men with already promising futures who join fraternities are in short making sure that that future is even more promising, fraternity membership assuring access to “brods” who can open even wider the doors to opportunity that mean wealth and power in Philippine society.

Fraternity alumni do take their loyalty to their fraternities seriously, these loyalties even transcending the imperatives of politics. During the martial-law period, for example, political dissidents, who were UP graduates and who had “brods” in the defense and military establishments, received better treatment than those without. Take note of that newspaper photograph in which two of the Alpha Phi Beta frat leaders suspected of participation in the hazing of Icasiano are shown at the National Bureau of Investigation. They came accompanied by an alumnus “brod,” Sen. Robert Barbers, to better assure themselves of preferential treatment

The decision to join a fraternity, for the promising young man in UP, is in short very likely to be a calculated act of future self-advancement, and not primarily an immature mind’s need to belong and hankering for peer support. If anything this suggests the “maturity” of cynicism-denying ideals, it looks at the real world, with all its demands for connections and patronage, and seeks to adjust to it rather than to change it.

It doesn’t speak well of the kind of students UP is attracting and graduating. It implies that what drives the promising young is not service to society but self-advancement. This is no secret in UP, however, which in a study on its own students conducted a few years ago discovered that its students are generally competent and endowed with leadership qualities. What they don’t have is social awareness, and therefore a social conscience.

That much has been evident to faculty members shocked at the average UP student’s drive, not for knowledge towards service to society and people, but for high grades, period (the better to assure them of a well-paying job after graduation). It’s also a sneaking suspicion among the handful of remaining UP student activists who can’t get a decent crowd to join the latest demonstration against the Visiting Forces Agreement. Get high grades, chill out, stay away from demonstrations, serve yourself and not the people is only too obviously the UP student’s current guide to life and the pursuit of happiness.

That contradicts UP’s once less than respectable image as the haven of radicals and is the result of the “me-first” outlook the authoritarian period (1972-86) in the Philippines encouraged. The fraternities in fact began to decline at the height of the UP student movement in the ’60s, but picked up again in the black ’70s, when their lack of social consciousness was a safe alternative to social awareness and its consequences: prison, death, or what’s even worse to the Filipino middle class, poverty.

The trend continued after 1986 when, helped along by the imbecilic assumption among some academics themselves that with the Marcos regime gone everything was okay, fewer and fewer students regarded social involvement as meaningful.This in a country mired in exquisite poverty, hobbled by an incompetent and uncaring leadership, and steadily being ruined by a ruling class with its suitcases packed and ready to jump into the next flight to the United States once the forests and rivers give out!

Given the social bases of the resurrection of the fraternities in UP, coming soon, we can all be assured, is more of the same. Among UP fraternity circles is in fact the conviction that the current furor created by the death of Alexander Icasiano will die down soon enough, and that, despite the strict rules in fraternity hazing UP has, which mandate expulsion for hazing-related offenses, and the existence of the Anti-Hazing Law which criminalizes hazing, violent initiations will continue.

Though this sounds like arrogance, it isn’t so much arrogance as a form of cynicism based on an accurate understanding of how Philippine society, with its laws that are not observed, and its dependence on patronage, operates. Philippine society, including UP and their elders, have taught these barbarians well.

14 thoughts on “Barbarians

  1. Very good piece, sir.

    What you said about the lack of social conscience and social consciousness that’s already evident in UP students is true.

    I think this trend will continue (and get even worse) now that the tuition fee has increased by three folds. This will eventually screen out the underprivileged but deserving aspiring iskolars who probably have a better grasp of social conscience and social consciousness.

  2. All attention seems to be on the fraternity who allegedly caused Mendez’s death. However, not too many remember that it was Mendez himself who signed his own death sentence by joining a fraternity. In this regard, I put the same blame on the victim as his alleged killers.

    You gave a good point sir in your article when you said that most students in UP join fraternities in order to open wider doors of opportunity “that mean wealth and power in Philippine society.”

    The violence also extends in other, non-paddling organizations throughout the campus.

    We have to remember that hazing, as the law states, can be psychological or mental torture. And the College of Mass Communications is a host to this recurring problem.

  3. weng

    indeed UP is so ideal a school that many young students would dream to go to in college. but frat ruthless wars and hazings obscure and stain this image of UP.
    i hope, in the years to come, frats in UP get mature enough to think that loyalty from their members cannot be guaranteed by mere beatings and sacrifice of the limb

  4. kc bugayong

    I have been in too many gatherings and a funeral for victims of campus violence during my days in UP. I think it has been long overdue for these organizations to go back to their original goals and objectives. I am pretty sure that violence isn’t part of it.They need to re-direct their attention to why they exist in the first place and must see their organization’s relevance both in their lives and society!
    Fraternity “brothers” owe it to themselves to better their organization and learn from history.Be men and act like men! STOP campus violence!

  5. abj

    How ironic that UP should ask the government to fix this problem. We see UP students marching to Mendiola protesting government’s violent actions in Mindanao, against urban poor, etc. And now the same UP students asking the government for help to stop the frat violence happening in UP’s own backyard..

    Wouldn’t it be great if UP can rise above all this strife and get the students to respect human rights? Wouldn’t it be great if UP students can see themselves as part of a greater fraternity that fights social injustices and the rights of others.

    There are so many things worth dying for… a fraternity is not one of them..

    ABJ
    UP 1988

  6. jm

    Senseless.

    The death of Cris adds yet another chapter to UP’s history of pointless fraternity violence. Another promising ‘iskolar ng bayan’ dying for membership to a so-called respectable and influential fraternity raises questions on what is truly the role of this kind of organizations to society and to the self.

    But bear in mind, fraternities and sororities are not all the same. Let us not judge so hastily.

    As a member of a nationalist and alternative sisterhood, we stand together in condemning the barbaric acts of hazing and frat wars. We should mobilize the youth into becoming more responsible and critical citizens of this country instead of lining them up as punching bags. We do not mold future leaders by taking away their right to live and stripping away their potentials.

    Fraternity and sorority members, let us prove them wrong by serving society and fighting the real demons of the prevailing oppressive structure that has tolerated hierarchy and abuse to the weak.

    Break away from the tradition! Rebel for the worthy cause! If we are to die, it is better to pass away as heroes and not just victims… Let us recall the victims of political killings who had served the people selflessly and fought courageously for till the very end. These are those we should look up to and not the known frat or soro alumni in their comfy seats in the administration.

    On joining frats and soros, choose and act wisely, isko…

    Align with an organization which would not leave you for dead but would advance your character and productivity through a life-long brotherhood and sisterhood and unified commitment to serve the people.

    NOTE: Thank you so much for your very cool classes at CMC, Sir Teodoro! I really loved your enlightening lectures but unfortunately it did not really reflect on my midterm grade for Journ ethics during my last year as undergrad. But it’s better acted out than just written, right? haha… More power, sir!

  7. I came across a recent news in inquirer about another UP student (future leader) that fell in the hands of his would-be brothers. I am stricken, especially since it gave me a flashback of my “darkest hour” in UP. See, I was less than a “barbarian” sir, I was a sorority Quitter. The lowest of the low, in the eyes of the greek-lettered people.

    I was one of the most naive ones who thought that college life will be much easier if I belonged to the greek lettered group than alone. The main problem was, they didn’t like me. With that in mind, I packed my things and kept going in the direction that my province-based parents expected me to go.

    Thanks for your article, sir. It did bring me back to that dark time of self-doubt and self-recrimination, but it made me smile also, as I realize that I was saved from what-could-have-happened-to-me.

    I do hope many more UP students read this.

  8. absj

    We can better understand fraternity violence in UP if we know the (true) history of these fraternities. The old (pre-1960’s) fraternities have an uneasy existence among each other until the arrival of 1960’s fraternities. These latter fraternities have a relatively peaceful early years until the old fraternities (whose recruitment of new members had been adversely affected by intense rivalry among themselves resulting to violent confrontations)began picking on the new ones.

    The new fraternities were formed in the 1960’s as a response to students yearning to join a peaceful fraternity outside the violence and intense rivalry among the old fraternities. But old fraternities were jealous as a result of their waning numbers and began picking on the new ones that threatened their existence. At first, the new fraternities were passive on the abuse of the old fraternities. But patience and cool heads can not always prevail when there is too much abuse to take. The new fraternities struck back and the rest is history as we know it.

    Then Martial Law came, the old fraternities bonded into groups which tend to support the government as most of their alumni members are identified with the dictator. From the old fraternities, I can vividly remember that Beta Sigma was not among them that supported, one way or another, the dictatorship. In the campus politics, old fraternities are identified with dictatorship (or just stayed passive) while the new (1960’s)fraternities with Beta Sigma stood steadfast against the dictatorship.

    When the dictatorship was overthrown, the different groups of alliances of fraternities also changed. Some 1960s fraternities allied themselves with old ones, and vice versa. But one thing I noticed, if a member of a fraternity joins the political elite of the country—alliances are made for convenience and drastically changes the shape the political scene in the campus in accordance with the dictates of the alumni members.

    I just hope that the old frats should change their outlook on other fraternities and make amends with them. Otherwise, the cycle of violence will just go on and the wounds of hatred goes deeper beyond repair. I am so ashamed to be called a christian with all these fraternity violence happening in my alma mater.

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