September 1st, 2007
(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.