As I walk through the quad in the spring and fall, I deliberately try to have my headphones in and look straight ahead as though the cacophony of different student organizations is not trying desperately to catch my attention. One day last fall, however, I did not have my headphones and was forced to interact with the people trying to get my attention.
Among the religious organizations blasting Christian pop and the sororities giving out candy was another archetypal group: the fraternity fundraising for a cause. These tables are often identifiable by some sort of interactive element in which the passerby can donate a certain amount, and then in some way delight in watching as a fraternity member gets publicly embarrassed. The iconic ones include a pie to the face or a dunk tank. These shame elements are mysteriously missing in sorority fundraisers, a curious distinction that deserves investigation.
What makes people want to throw a pie at a stranger’s face? What makes a person want to submerge a person they do not know in a dunk tank? Why do fraternities find this to be a good mechanism for raising money? In an article for the New York Times, Maya Salam defines toxic masculinity as “what can come of teaching boys that they can’t express emotion openly; that they have to be ‘tough all the time;’ that anything other than that makes them feminine or weak.”
While many onlookers might feel awkward watching a woman get a pie thrown in her face, watching the same act happen to a man is somehow entertaining. When men are publicly embarrassed, the only acceptable reaction is laughter or anger. In the context of a fraternity fundraising event, an audience would expect only laughter.
The simple fact of the matter is that people do not like being publicly embarrassed. An emotion that is usually associated with enjoyment has been attached to the subtle hazing that Greek organizations perpetuate after the public discovered the much more severe hazing that was happening in private. The implication with public embarrassment is that men should be able to ‘take it’ because they are tough. This is on par with bullying, except that these men are choosing to be involved with the people who are bullying them, a price they deem appropriate for the social capital their humiliation might earn them.
The problem intensifies when this toxic practice is associated with philanthropy. Humanitarian organizations need money but are somehow implicit when they take money earned from negative social practices. Throughout the years, there have been many instances of bad people donating to good causes. Think of the donations of the Sackler family, the owners of Oxycontin and to many universities. Though I do not believe fraternities are equal to a corrupt pharmaceutical company, the similarities are clear.
If people were sitting in the quad being forced to endure pies to the face for no reason, people would be confused. However, when the cause is deemed “good,” it is socially acceptable. Men should not have to endure toxic practices in the guise of charity. Hazing and toxic masculinity are real, and the public performance of them should not be tolerated if we hope to embrace and include men in healthy social practices and egalitarian community.