It is unfortunate that fraternity men and women place an intense, dramatic focus on their secret rituals. We would be better people and organizations if we gave such care and attention to our members.
On occasion, someone will try to explain the difference between fraternities and other campus organizations and will use ritual as that defining quality.
“Other organizations offer you friends, you can do service with any organization on campus,” they say, “but we have a ritual and secrets that bind us into something too difficult to explain,” politely sold with a, “you have to experience brotherhood to know it.”
This fundamental misunderstanding of what makes fraternity and sorority “different” from other student organizations is telling, because our current best practice is to sell the two most mysteriously inexplicable things about our organizations: ritual and brotherhood.
Neither can be neatly summed up to a potential member, and it seems as if members and national structures alike have confused the secrecy of their ritual with a need to be secretive about things loosely associated with it as if they were a modern day politician praying desperately not to be hacked.
But let’s keep this post down to Earth and out of the hilariously grand strategic shifts recommended on this website. Why should you, your chapter or your group of alumni volunteers/friends stop treating Ritual as some token left behind by a creator?
1. YOUR RITUAL WAS WRITTEN BY A HUMAN MEMBER OF YOUR ORGANIZATION
I have yet to hear of a fraternity convention (conclave, congregation, whatever you want to call it) at which a matterless deity flew down from the heavens and blasted a ritual with knowledge so secret and sacred that it would put the human species at risk to reveal it to those too careless to understand its importance.
Maybe I am behind on my understanding of other fraternity’s conventions.
The fact is that there are clever secrets in each fraternity ritual, but those are more utilized as a way to identify members or to serve at what is perhaps the greatest bonding agent of fraternity membership: the inside joke that we treat our secrets as something of immense contribution to the human condition.
I am not suggesting we make all rituals public, but I am suggesting that I don’t think it would hurt any organization as much as some of us make it seem like it would. Someone wrote it. Someone else can rewrite it. Some have already made theirs public (and some of those still have secrets like those I mentioned above).
2. FRATERNITIES HAVE MERGED AND SPLIT, AS HAVE RITUALS
Our unique little history of fraternity and sorority life is filled with organizations absorbing other organizations or breaking off of parent organizations.
With those dramatic changes in ownership, most fraternity rituals have been morphed by being combined with a merged fraternity’s ritual or mutating after one fraternity split off from another. In the end, however, the ritual is a simple means to an end of explaining a way of life typically rooted in Christianity or Judaism.
Even modern fraternities developed without a parent religion align themselves with the traditions and culture of religiously-developed organizations. What am I getting at?
Our rituals are different, yes. They involve different characters, symbols and teach different ways of life. But each of our rituals is some transformation of a previously existing ritual, whether your founders were Christian, Jewish, black, white, athiest or Free Masons.
The greatest, most prolific, most impactful religions of the world have open rituals. So you are going to tell me that our rituals, devised with the template of religious rituals, are so sacred as to never be shared but to be used to endlessly tease potential members? Nah.
3. RITUAL IS VALUABLE AS A TOOL TO GET TO OUR ULTIMATE PRODUCT: EXCELLENT MEMBERSHIP
There is one thing that each fraternity has that no other fraternity or sorority has: its unique composition of members.
The more focused and driven an organization is in recruiting the right members and providing them with the right opportunities the greater an impact it will have on this world.
Some fraternities and sororities are oriented toward service, and so they recruit men and women who wish to contribute service. Some are aligned with a profession, and so they recruit men and women who exemplify excellence and support one another through their profession.
Some are social, and they exist to connect men and women of a variety of backgrounds and interests, but who share a loosely defined way of life. A way of life outlined in the ritualistic initiation into that organization.
That being said, Ritual is not the end, but part of the means to an end. Even then, rituals can and have been changed throughout history, either because of mergers, separation, “outing,” or changes in the way we understand equality. Rituals are not permanent, but time spent is.
It’s not that ritual is unimportant – it is incredibly important.
As a tool to better develop our membership our rituals serve as entertaining, memorable ways to express the way of life we wish our members to live. That’s where ritual’s role ends.
Any organization can copy something created by someone else, and we should treat those things we create (service projects, philanthropy events, parties, titles, scholarships, rituals, catchphrases, processes) as things made to be emulated and copied.
What cannot be copied is the composition of an organization’s membership. Those organizations that lift and support their members, particularly those who exemplify that organization’s ritual, will find their status lifted along with their membership.
Those who are focused entirely on the image of the organization and the output of its student members may be missing the point of fraternity entirely.