The Mystique of Secret Covenant

“How could you win the loyalty of such men?”

“There are proven ways: play on the certain knowledge of their superiority, the mystique of secret covenant, the esprit of shared suffering. It can be done. It has been done on many worlds in many times.”

Frank Herbert

Today, a friend of mine just got elected President of his fraternity. I’m told it was a moment of high drama. I, however, wasn’t around to see it. I belong to a different organization and, well, these things are kept private. In any case, and this being the tail-end of a Sunday, the news reminded me of the many times I’ve promised myself that I would write about fraternities and hazing. Today seemed to be a better time than most.

I wish it never happened – wish that it would never happen ever again – but every few years or so, the headlines are hogged by news of some poor boy who died as a result of initiation hazing. Predictably, this would be followed by a crackdown on fraternities and a widespread condemnation of the barbarism of hazing. And in today’s age of social media, you can bet that the social channels would be set ablaze by people asking “how could they do that to someone who only wanted brotherhood?”

It’s a resonant question, and like the flag, motherhood, and apple pie, fairly hard to argue against. Difficult, but not impossible.

In the novel Dune – which has been one of my pre-occupations these days – Frank Herbert wrote about a fanatically loyal army called the Sardaukar. In the course of a conversation between two of the novel’s protagonists, the question of the Sardaukar’s origins comes up. The Duke reveals to his son that the fanatical army drew its numbers from a notoriously hellish penal planet, implying that, before they were Sardaukar, the Sardaukar were among the galaxy’s worst. The Duke’s son, who is learning of this truth for the first time, asks how the loyalty of such men could be ensured. The Duke replies that there are proven methods for ensuring loyalty. “Play on the certain knowledge of their superiority,” he says, “the mystique of secret covenant, the esprit of shared suffering.”

Anyone who has ever tried – whether successfully or otherwise – to join a fraternity will recognise the truth of those words, because those are the very things that lie at the core of any fraternity.

A Certain Superiority

Used here, the word “certain” carries the ordinary meaning of “sure” or “absolute,” rather than the legalistic sense of “a particular kind.” Absolute superiority, then.

Any organization that calls itself a brotherhood – or sisterhood for that matter – is founded on this core idea: that we are set apart from others. And what sets us apart is some characteristic of which we are better exemplars than anyone else: discipline, intelligence, beauty – whatever. In this one regard, we are superior to others.

Of course, in fraternities, this superiority is not always expressed in such bare terms. In law school, for instance, one of the most common draws is that membership in a fraternity will give you, when you graduate, unique access to a professional network wider and more powerful than any other. Membership will guarantee a good future otherwise unavailable to you. The best part is that, this is usually true. Membership does have its tangible benefits, especially if you’re joining a prestigious enough fraternity. But even a younger organization – perhaps less established – can still offer such a network. If nothing else, an organization can pride itself on being an excellent support system that understands each brother in ways not even his biological family can.

In fact, the fraternity is a stand-in for family. Just as teachers are considered in loco parentis, so too should fraternities be considered in loco families, organisations standing in the place of families.

Thus, for fraternities and similar organisations, fostering the belief in their initiates that they are joining an exclusive club becomes an essential component of the process, starting from pledge week, i.e., the period of indoctrination leading up to the initiation night itself.

The Mystique of Secret Covenant

A crucial part of establishing this belief in certain superiority is the sharing of secrets. As the initiate progresses through indoctrination, more and more of the fraternity’s philosophy’s are revealed, typically under the seal of secrecy. These philosophies represent the 11 secrets herbs and spices that make the fraternity special – and by extension, vests the same kind of special-ness on its members.

Some of these philosophies are trite, of course. We abhor violence, we promote academic excellence, and so on. But it doesn’t really matter. These clichéd concepts are never given bare. Always they are shrouded in pseudo-mysticism to give them the aura of ancient wisdom, received from the fraternity’s founding fathers. The initiates receive this wisdom, along with the charge to, in their turn, pass it on to equally worthy recipients.

This process of torch-passing is the engine driving the continuing progression of the fraternity. As such, it’s importance cannot be downplayed.

I admit, all of this sounds rather Goebbel-ish; brainwashing, if you will. And in a sense, it is, only it isn’t necessarily as malevolent as those associations would imply. It is simply, by necessity, a more highly distilled – and therefore, potentially more psychologically potent – form of the same conditioning we receive from our families. “Raise our family flag, high, son!” our fathers might say, just before we stumble onto the soccer field; “Do your family proud,” our mothers might tell daughters, just before she takes that entrance exam to that prestigious university. If any of that sounds familiar, then you know what it’s like to be a fraternity initiate.

You protest: but families are different! Families are based on love!

In their own way, fraternities are based on love as well. And in general, it is just as benevolent and uplifting as familial love. It’s just that, when all you see of it is the horror of things gone wrong, it can be quite difficult to imagine it being otherwise. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself now what you think of marriage.

Those of us who grew up painfully aware of divorce statistics are likely to dismiss the idea of marriage, aren’t we? But does that truly make matrimony a failed concept? Hardly. “Thank God, for mom and dad for sticking through together, coz we don’t know how,” is more than just lyrics to Heyyah; it is the plaintive lament of a generation that has learned to despair of monogamy.

The Esprit of Shared Suffering

So now we come to the glue that holds it all together. Keep in mind that the process of joining a fraternity is essentially a crash course in creating the kind of bond that we typically see in families, only there isn’t a lifetime of opportunity to do it. At most, the initiation process can take only up to two weeks. Creating the family-like bond necessary must therefore be speeded up considerably. And nature knows one very effective way to do that: the judicious application of heat and pressure. Or in this case, shared suffering.

Most people on the outside profess confusion at the idea of showing love for future brothers by causing them pain. This premise is flawed because the infliction of pain via hazing isn’t literally about expressing your love for the initiate. If anything else, it is more about creating an environment where the bond of filial love between the initiates is created through the expedient of pain. A lesson, if you will, is being taught that if you love your brother, you will stand with him, just as he will stand with you; and together you will both win through to the end.

This is not sick; this is perverse. It is a process that occurs naturally. We see it in children, bonding at the playground against a common tormentor; we see it in love affairs springing up as a result of stress-laden propinquity; we see it in soldiers coming home from areas of conflict. Only in this case, this process is drastically speeded up.

And, as difficult as it may be for an outsider to accept, this process does not just take place between fellow initiates. It affects the way the fraternity members see the new members too. The point of view varies slightly, of course. Instead of seeing the suffering as a shared trial, the old members see it as a test of determination; the determination that speaks of love for the organisation and what it represents. Again, this too is not unnatural. We see it in the process of the new boyfriend being grilled by the disapproving brothers and the hostile father; and we hear echoes of it in the oft-quoted line: if you decide you don’t love our daughter, give her back.

The loyalty of men

Fraternities – all organisations for that matter – require loyalty from its members; the kind of loyalty that one gives to family. In Dune, the Sardaukar may be an army of hardened killers, but in their own way, they are a family unto themselves. And it is this sense of being part of that family, of ultimately being responsible for every other soldier as if he were actually a biological brother, was what made the Sardaukar so cohesive and, yes, loyal.

Fraternities don’t aspire to be death-dealing armies, of course. In the sense that this one quibble will probably be raised endlessly, the comparison might be unfortunate. But the accreted details don’t matter quite as much as the core concepts involved. Fraternities are built along the same line as families, except that they are forced to approximate the same kind of cohesiveness within a ridiculously short time, hence the hazing.

Don’t get me wrong though.

Unfettered Violence is stupid

I do not condone the levels of violence that apparently some fraternities have been employing. The roots of such practices may be good and noble, but anything taken to an extreme becomes a malignancy, a cancer. In any case, taking it to such extremes is just plain stupid.

There are many ways to foster knowledge of certain superiority, the mystique of a secret covenant, and the esprit of shared suffering – to inspire the loyalty of men – without causing irreparable harm. Lots of organisations have done it. My own organisation was actually founded on the rejection of extreme measures such as the use of unfettered violence and the gratuitous infliction of pain, and it’s still going strong.

In large part, that’s because we’ve had officers and members who have remained true to the vision of the founding fathers. We hold non-violence to be OUR defining value; the superior point of view that sets us apart. This is not to say, of course, that it is unique to us. No. Our sense of superiority arises not from being better than others, but in being better than our baser instincts.

All fraternities have that same moral fibre, I believe, whether they still use traditional initiation methods or not. In the end, it might be presented as a matter of degree. How much leeway can be given to the members, for instance, is a question I’ve often heard. Or it can be a pragmatic question of how adequately prepared the members are to administer effective first aid. But I hope not. While pain and violence are the tried and tested methods, the bottom line is that they are not the only ones available. Haven’t families also evolved from corporal punishment?

A word of caution, however.

While fraternities must evolve, they must also be careful not to breed out that which makes them unique and effective. They must not lose their distinctiveness in the rush to be just as sterile and sanitary as every other social club. To allow that to happen would be to allow weakness to creep into the organisation, and to undermine it to the point of unrecognizability. And that would be a crying shame.



Bonus points if you can identify in the comments below, the fraternity seal in the featured image!

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