Twice a year, millions of orange butterflies would emerge from fields of wildflowers to start a northward or southward migration. These migrations signaled the start of summer and fall respectively. The towns organized festivals around the occasions. Residents would gather to watch the sky transform into a mosaic of orange wings and blue atmosphere.
Generation after generation witnessed the migration, and the towns each adopted a butterfly as their official symbol.
To North Town, the butterfly represented fate and the cyclical systems of nature. The event reminded them of the season’s cycles, which were essential to the town’s mostly farming community. On a deeper level, the migration represented the circle of life and the value of family.
In the southern town, the people admired the effects the migration had on the little valley. Travelers would come from around the country to witness the event, boosting the economy, and the butterflies pollinated fields of beautiful flowers. They served an important role for all local life. To the people of South Town, the butterfly represented the powerful ripple effects sparked by individual actions and people – The Butterfly Effect.
Two towns with similar demographics, joined by centuries of tradition, and which share identical symbols. But the symbols represent arguably opposing worldviews.
Let’s imagine there is a third town in a separate valley to the west of North Town and South Town. Here, near dark and dingy swamps, residents considered it good luck to spot the West Town Butterfly – known for its striking emerald green wings. West Towners too adopted the butterfly as a symbol, but to them it represented awe and inspiration. Life is not perfect, so we must cherish beauty where we find it.
Which of these towns had the correct interpretation of the butterfly?
Would the customs and traditions built around North Town’s belief in fate and the cycles of nature appeal to South Towns more individualistic crowd? What about the South Town’s focus on one’s opportunity to change an environment compared to the West’s belief in finding beauty in the cards one is dealt?
Okay, Final Town. . .
Say someone from East Town, a town built along winding, mountainous roads, was elected governor for the region. Her town is comprised of hunters who celebrate a local wasp for its hunting prowess.
With authority over the four towns, she finds common ground in that each values a flying insect. So, she creates a unified school curriculum, festival schedule, and iconography for all four towns. The people; however, stubbornly maintained their old customs when the governor was not around.
What did she get wrong? They all shared common symbols; shouldn’t her creation have appealed to all residents of all towns?
When we say we believe in the right to speech, expression, and association, we must accept that what one believes to be true is true – even if it is only true to them. We all wish to see our values represented in those things with which we associate. Trouble can arise when we expect to see our values represented in everything with which we interact.
Perception, Expectation & Reality
Many leaders share a blind-spot where commonalities are mistaken for alignment. Fraternities present a perfect example. Fraternity leaders emphasize “shared values,” things which supposedly apply to all fraternities and sororities such as community service, brotherhood, leadership, academics, etc.
Educational and accreditation programs and policies are builta round them – the expectation being that all organizations of a campus or umbrella association fall in line. After all. . .these are things we all believe, right?
But different institutions have different ideas of what are our shared values. Some fraternity communities have three shared values, some have five and others even more. “We are basically all the same,” we say. “Even our rituals are only slight variations of one another.” Even still, we can’t figure out what is “the same.”
One can imagine that saying so is just an excuse to create as generic and broadly applicable an understanding of “fraternity” possible. That makes for a good business model as opposed to tailoring your standards, curriculum, and rules to the customs, traditions and people of different organizations. Unfortunately, fraternities are friend clubs, and business models don’t do well with friend clubs (See: Facebook).
From Commonality to Control
Two people with similar values can sometimes build a friendship, even if their interpretation of those values differ. Each of the four towns had friendly relationships with the others, but that could easily turn sour if one tried to control the rest. Fraternity chapters often have friendly relationships with students who share the same ritual or attend the same university, too.
Most of the members of my fraternity, for example, get along with members from different chapters without issue. We can’t agree on a nickname or how to pronounce “YITBOS,” but those little differences add flavor to the experience.
This is the double-edged sword of shared values. When left alone, they can create links of friendship. Friendship is essential for happiness and community. We all learn at leadership programs that our actions must match our stated values. So when we believe we “share values” with others, we can fall into a trap of assuming their actions must match our interpretation of said values.
That is the root cause of the issues plaguing fraternities in the 21st Century. Our shared values have, in effect, been manipulated to allow a shrinking, centralized group of professionals to assume an increasing level of influence and authority. The era of student-led, self-governing fraternities is long gone.
That runs counter the narrative that fraternity chapters operate in a form of anarchy, killing people left and right. A narrative pushed in part by that shrinking, centralized group of professionals.
Consent Is Not Just For Sex
When have our members last been asked if they agree with our shared values? Consider this at all levels of all organizations. We say we support the freedom of association, but the approach of Greek Life’s careerist leaders has instead created a homogenized, less diverse, less accessible fraternity community.
Those are all things that Fraternity/Sorority professionals and leaders will swear they fight against. But so long as we continue to claim that our organizations are “essentially the same,” we will continue to be, well, the same.