Vantage Point | Hazing and the culture of violence

March 17, 2023

The death of Adamson University student John Matthew Salilig at the hands of his presumptive fraternity “brothers” is a wake-up call to everyone, especially those with a relative in a college or university, that hazing is a continuing problem in many schools as well as in other Philippine institutions. Salilig’s case is in fact provoking other citizens who had so far been silent to reveal how their own kin were similarly victimized.

Hazing is “the persecution or torture (of) somebody in a subordinate position.” It has become part of the initiation rites that have taken deep roots in the practice of Philippine fraternities and other organizations. New members or recruits are initiated by forcing them to do embarrassing, humiliating or dangerous acts, or subjecting them to physical abuse, of which the most common form is paddling. Salilig was reportedly paddled 70 times.

Hazing is both a consequence and a symptom of the culture of violence in these murderous isles. Like extrajudicial killings, hazing deaths not only devastate entire families. They also feed the blood lust for even more violence, and deny Philippine society the contributions to its betterment that the victims could have provided had they survived.

There is hazing as well in a number of other organizations, but its practice in fraternities is what has been most widely reported. The Philippine versions of Greek letter societies are akin to those of the United States, in the universities and colleges of which fraternities (men-only organizations) and sororities (societies that accept only women) are recognized, except in those institutions where they are banned. Hazing deaths have also been reported in the US.

Fraternities were imported to the Philippines in the post-US colonial period. Their local founders and leaders adapted quickly to the realities of a hierarchical society in which economic, political, and social rank matter most. They survive to this day on the assumption that belonging to them puts a member at least a rung above those not similarly “distinguished.”

Membership in such societies is in fact premised on, and made attractive by, their doors’ supposedly being open only to a selected few. Exclusivity is the presumed advantage of fraternity or sorority membership.

Some Greek letter organizations, particularly honor societies, go even further. They recruit only students with exceptional academic performance, while others recruit those recognized for their leadership, athletic achievement, or popularity. One not only belongs; one also belongs in an organization with an exclusive membership. Being in a fraternity, whether under- or above-ground, puts the student in the company of the school elite.

But it is when the student graduates that membership in a Greek letter society becomes truly meaningful. It opens doors not only to better jobs, but also to greater opportunities for advancement in feudal Philippines, where who one knows is a qualification superior to one’s knowledge and skills. Because of fraternity ties, a new graduate can overnight find himself in a job he would otherwise have had to work years for, and be first in line for advancement besides, thanks to his “brods.”

The majority of fraternities enforce their claims to exclusivity through harsh initiation rites, on the presumption that the organization’s being open only to those applicants who can survive verbal, physical, and even mental abuse endows it with some sort of distinction. As odd as it may seem, social psychologists have found that it is this fraternity practice that by adding endurance and physical prowess to their personas most attracts even the most accomplished students.

Some Congressmen propose a total ban on fraternities whenever a particularly vicious instance of hazing makes the headlines. A ban is likely to be introduced this year because of the lethal consequence of the practice on Salilig and other applicant-members. But as at least one senator has pointed out, banning fraternities altogether would be unconstitutional, a fact about which its proponents seem oddly unaware.

In addition to abridging the right of every citizen to join any organization of his or her choice, singling out one type of organization for prohibition would also be discriminatory. What is even worse is that such a ban could set a precedent that would justify banning other organizations, and undermine the right to join an organization of one’s choice. A ban on fraternities could also include penalties for violations of its provisions by themselves, which could also make such a law a bill of attainder, or a law that punishes without trial.

Schools can of course ban fraternities and the like. That prerogative is theirs to exercise should they wish to. But as the entire country is currently witnessing, a school ban does not guarantee that fraternities won’t be organized in secret or will disappear. On the contrary. A ban endows them, it seems, with the romance and intrigue that add to the attractions of the forbidden.

Neither has the 2018 Anti-Hazing Act (RA 11053), despite its harsh provisions, stopped violent initiations. The ban on fraternities in Adamson University didn’t stop the Tau Gamma Phi Fraternity to which Salilig was applying for membership from establishing an underground chapter in that school, and could arguably have made membership in what amounts to a secret society glamorous and exciting. Meanwhile, the Anti-Hazing Act has forced fraternities to move their hazing rites outside the schools and into private homes and other places beyond the reach of school authorities.

It seems self-serving when individuals who are members of fraternities (such as Senator Juan Edgardo “Sonny” Angara, who, like his father the late former senator Edgardo J. Angara, is an alumnus member of the University of the Philippines’ Sigma Rho fraternity) oppose the banning of fraternities. But they may have a point. Perhaps Greek letter societies are better recognized so they can be monitored, and their activities, such as initiation rites, controlled by the school involved.

Hazing has led to neophyte injuries and deaths in the country’s schools from 1954 to the present. Some have been reported in Manila-based universities as well as in the Visayas and Mindanao. University of the Philippines (UP) fraternities have also been implicated in some hazing deaths. Hundreds have been killed in many such incidents and in various institutions including the police and military academies over the last seven decades.

But despite the many injuries and deaths, fraternities and similar organizations have no shortage of applicants. It is not just because they meet the need to belong inherent in every human being. They are also among the more reliable means through which the ambitious student establishes the contacts that are so crucial to future advancement in the professions, business, and government in this country.

Many dismiss membership in Greek letter societies as the refuge of the immature. But the lure of it is actually based on aspirants’ understanding of how Philippine society works. Only when feudal Philippines changes can the fraternities change and the violence that many of them inflict be a thing of the past.

But if only to demonstrate that the impunity murderers, thieves, torturers, and plunderers enjoy in this country doesn’t apply to them, those responsible for the hazing death of John Matthew Salilig and who have presumably injured others as well should get the long prison terms they deserve. The Anti-Hazing Law must also be amended and its flaws corrected. One can only hope that both could help reduce the numbers of those victimized by the culture of violence and impunity that so distressingly afflicts the whole of Philippine society.

Luis V. Teodoro is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

Published in Business World
March 9, 2023

Featured image by Nicola Fioravanti on Unsplash

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