Inside the brotherhood: Thoughts on fraternity violence

Raymund E. Narag, PhD

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Inside the brotherhood: Thoughts on fraternity violence
So many young promising men had been put to waste. So many dreams had been shattered. So many families had been broken.

Another young promising man, Horacio Tomas Castillo III, died in fraternity hazing. A law student, he died as he underwent physical initiations in the hands of his future brothers. Many more fratmen will be made to pay the price for his death.

While we call for justice and that punishments must be exacted on individuals who inflicted such horror and suffering, we could just lament why our educational system systematically produces young promising men, only to reduce them to such a barbaric state.

I once had the misfortune of being entangled in the issue of fraternity violence. And I suffered much. That is why it had been one of my advocacies to curb fraternity violence. The only way I can do this is to educate people about the fraternity system and describe it from a dispassionate point of view. (READ: Youth groups condemn death of UST student Horacio Castillo III)

Below is my long reflection on the state of the fraternity system. It was written right after my acquittal from a murder case. Please share with every parent and everyone who cares about the future of their children.

So many young promising men had been put to waste. So many dreams had been shattered. So many families had been broken.

The fraternity system has become a big black hole that sucks these young promising men to their graves. The fraternity as an institution, despite its noble and lofty ideals, has degenerated into becoming a barbaric gang. Internally, its organizational structure has become so hierarchically feudal, with the head becoming the law and the members losing their individuality. Externally, it has imbibed the culture of the tribesmen and treats other tribes as an unforgivable “enemy”.

With the barbaric culture of the fraternities, school administrations have responded with iron fists. They apply more stringent measures and harsher penalties to those caught in the act of violence. Others have totally banned the formation of the fraternities in the campus and deny the fraternities’ existence. Some schools even equate frat members with criminals preying on unsuspecting students/victims.

The seeds of violence

Though cloaked with the noble and lofty visions such as academic excellence, nationalism, leadership, rule of law, intellectual integrity and other high principles, the fraternities developed strong organizational cultures that arose out of competition from other fraternities. The organizational culture, which has leanings toward violence, is what makes fraternities lost in their ideals.


The seeds of violence are sown into the heart of a fratman the moment he enters the fraternity. The rites of passage required before an applicant can be considered a “brother” is a ritual replete with physical and psychological violence. By testing the mettle through pain and humiliation, the new members are inducted to become blood brothers. In hazing or initiations, the neophytes are made to believe that their fraternity is the one and only fraternity that exists. All the rest are mere dance troupes. The “masters” would let their “neophytes” hate the “enemy” and vow for their enemy-fraternities’ destruction.

The physical violence impinged on frat member during initiations becomes the rationale for the acceptability of the other forms of violence. The members accept the violence as normal practice.

Fountains of hatred

The culture of hate is passed on from one generation to another. Stories of “war exploits” by senior and alumni members are told again and again to young members exhorting them to do their fair share in advancing the fraternity’s “glorious tradition.” They have evolved the “warrior class” to be the vanguard in the military efforts. The warrior class has the special mission of collecting information against the other parties, in plotting attacks and development of the paraphernalia of war. Members who do not adhere to the militarist tradition are considered outcasts or have low standing in the fraternity stature. The voices of those who cracked more skulls or who had proven themselves to be “the man” ring more stringently than those who wish to simply study and be an ordinary student.

Psychological violence

The other kind of violence that is less latent but equally repressive is the psychological violence imposed on the frat men. Frat members are obliged to conform to the “high ideals” of the fraternity. They are asked to do some tasks which test their loyalty to the fraternity yet could be a humiliating personal experience. As junior members or new recruits, they cannot air their opinions and ideas in the policy making of the fraternity officers. The members should follow rules without question. In the process, the individuality of the members is subsumed by the greater “interest of the fraternity”.

This setup makes it easy to mobilize the frat members in times of war. The head of the frat can easily command the whole membership and assign them to their specific tasks. Even those who are anti-violence and peace advocates within the frat have no option but to comply. They are asked to hold a lead pipe or baseball bat even if their hearts and minds do not find any logic in it. In a frat war situation, the other party does not distinguish who are the hotheads and the cool heads. The only consideration is that they are members of the “enemy” and the target of the hit.

Members who do not want to be involved in this practice are considered pariahs. They are the butt of jokes and the objects of scorn. Some frat members would simply become less visible in the tambayan because they cannot accept the norms of the frat. However, they would be called upon once in a while to perform some tasks. Also, they would be doing this at their own risk. In times of rumbles, they cannot be easily informed and updated about the status of war. They may attend their class and end up in a hospital. It then pays to become one of the boys.

Those who have inclinations to campus politics, academics, campus papers etc are given high esteem only if they have proven themselves to the fraternity. While it brings glory to a frat to have members in the student councils and school papers, nonetheless, the higher premium is still given to those who had become the head and officers of the frat. That is why there are members who are “picked” and “arranged” to become campus politicians. Their being in office is a manifestation of the fraternity’s flexing of the muscle.

The psychological violence is therefore cloaked in sophistication. While the frat members are obliged to surrender some of their individual rights, the promise of reward for the members come in the full enjoyment from the benefit the frat receives as a whole.

Code of silence

The fraternities anchor their strength on secrecy. Like the Sicilian code of omerta, fraternity members are bound to keep secrets from the non-members. They have codes and symbols the frat members alone can understand. They know if there are problems on campus by mere signs posted on conspicuous places. They have a different set of communicating, like inverting the spelling of words, so that ordinary conversations cannot be decoded by non-members. 

It takes a lot of acculturation in order for frat members to imbibe the code of silence. The members have to be a mainstay of the tambayan to know the latest developments about new members and the activities of other frats. Secrets are even denied to some members who are not really into the system. They have to earn a reputation to be part of the inner sanctum. It is a form of giving premium to become the “true blue member”.

The code of silence reinforces the feeling of elitism. The fraternities are worlds of their own. They are sovereign in their existence. They have their own myths, conceptualization of themselves and worldviews. Save perhaps for their alumni association, they do not recognize any authority aside from the head of the fraternity.


Rumbles are the physical manifestations of the psychological state of war among the members. Simple actions like “titigan” or “pagdaan sa tambayan ng kabilang frat” can be misunderstood as invitation for trouble. “Panliligaw sa girlfriend” or “nakabangga sa inuman” are explosive causes of war because they directly question the manhood or macho image of the frat member. There are also more childish reasons like “trip manghanap ng away”. This usually comes after young members are high with stories from their alumni members during their drinking sprees. The young members are regaled about incidents of war during the alumni’s time. After the drinking session, the first “enemy” to be seen from nowhere is mauled and becomes part of the frat’s war exploits.

There are also rumbles waged in the interest of the fraternity. This is usually in the defense of the fraternities’ name and image. Examples would be in the conduct of campus elections and when other fraternities encroached on the traditional projects of other fraternities. School debates or sports tournaments, thus, cannot be handled by another frat if there is a fraternity that had traditionally implemented such projects.

Other reasons of rumbles could be “Godfather-like” proportions. Rumbles are meant to strike fear in the heart of the “enemy”. When a frat is engaged in a rumble, it must hit the “enemy” with a strong exclamation point, such that the “enemy” will no longer have the physical and psychological strength to wage a rumble.

The culture of rumble is also self-perpetuating. When a fraternity has “lost” in a particular incident of war, that fraternity would present itself as a “victim”. It would contact friends in the media, file charges in the administrative and judicial bodies and portray itself as the aggrieved. Any bad publicity against the other party, expulsions, and suspensions from schools and incarceration in jails is also a way of getting back at the “enemy”. Then the fraternity buys time. It waits till the “enemy” is complacent and then unloads its vengeance and makes its score. Physical violence is still the highest premium in exacting flesh and blood. The other party now becomes the “victim”. It would file the appropriate charges and undergo the same motions. And then, the attack comes.

Rumbles are cyclical. And they exclude no one. Not even the grade-conscious, peace-loving frat members. Worse, they could be the easy targets. They attend classes regularly and be more visible in the campus. Thus, their schedules are easy to discern. They could be immediately plotted out in retaliation for an attack.

Cool heads and hotheads

Not all frat members, however, share the inclination or penchant for rumble and violence. In a fraternity, there are more cool heads than hotheads. Perhaps in every 10 members, there could be 8 cool heads and only two hot heads. However, the cool heads are the silent majority in the fraternity. They seldom speak during meetings and are not elected during frat elections. Their opinions and views on how to run the affairs of the fraternity are not properly and openly articulated. The cool heads have no identity in the frat. They are lost in the multitude. They do not know each other. They do not even know that they exist. Their longing for peace is gobbled up by the voice of the hotheads.

The hotheads, on the other hand, are the speakers and articulators of the “glorious tradition of the fraternity”, the tradition of war and violence. They would egg the other members to always look into their frat’s “pride and honor”. The hotheads would continually put a premium on the need and necessity of putting up a fight if the interest of the fraternity so demands. They would continually search for new members who share their beliefs and pass on to them the practices and techniques of war. They are the moral vanguards of the fraternity. They applaud members who had the recent experience of proving their mettle, of gallantly fighting during rumbles. The hotheads make and determine the policy of the officers by default. If for example, they wish to consolidate the fraternity, they could simply launch an attack against another frat. This will compel all the frat members to be united again in one cause.

The hotheads and the cool heads in a fraternity thus could not easily be distinguished. During times of rumbles, they act as if they are one. The cool heads become hotheads if, after some prodding and exhortation, they eventually adhere and become a convert. The hotheads also become cool heads, if, after some horrifying experiences, they rediscover that there is nothing good that comes out in fraternity violence.

Battle of two cultures

The culture of violence and the culture of peace have adherents in every fraternity. Among the fraternities themselves, there is always continuing debate on why there should and should be no rumbles.

Most of the time, the adherents of the violent culture hold sway. It is an adventurous way of life anyway, and there seem to be no hazards at all. Since most of the members are teenagers, they are young and wild and free, then it is the fashionable thing to be engaged in. Having a rumble once in a while drives up all the adrenaline inside the body and it is a healthy way of releasing unspent energies. During and after rumbles, especially if the frat wins, the members are all high and ecstatic in sharing their little war exploits. It bonds the members together.

However, when the culture of violence reaches a certain level where the occurrence of accidents becomes regular, the voice of the adherents for peace can be heard again. The deaths or convictions in criminal cases of fraternity members, especially when they are reported by the media, are like cold water splashed on the frat members. For a while, the culture for peace becomes more dominant. After an incident that puts the entire fraternity system in a bad light, the different fraternities, either sincere or not, put a semblance of intention in maintaining peace on campus. The fraternity members would rediscover the beauty of having friends with other fraternities again and would forge peace alliances. Different fraternities would come together to play basketball and vow to settle their disputes, if ever there would be, in a peaceful manner. The fraternities would be conscious not to add in the steering debate about fraternity violence. The fraternities are aware of having lesser recruits as a result of the bad public image.

However, when the issue in the media about frat violence boils down, or when a new set officers take control of the affairs of the fraternity, the seeds for maintaining a culture of peace slowly fade away. The hotheads in the fraternity and the stories of the alumni members about the need to always look out for the other fraternities once again take upper control in the battle of the two cultures. There would be little misunderstandings and the mechanisms for dialogues as a way to resolve disputes are forgotten. And when there is a crack on the foundations of peace, a rush of violent confrontations sets in, as if, the fraternities had come from a long hibernation and now have rediscovered their first love.

Public apathy

Non-frat members do not understand the mechanics of the fraternities. They do not see any logic why fraternity members engage themselves in violent activities. The non-fraternity members simply dissociate themselves from the problems that plague the fraternity system. They do not care if the frat members become maimed or killed in an incident of war. While they feel the loss and the pain of the families who have been victims of frat violence, their sympathy is extended only to sighs of utter hopelessness. They blame the depraved sense of values of the fraternities yet mock the frat member for becoming too stupid to join a frat. But when the issue dies down, the public loses all its bitterness. This happens till another person becomes a victim again.

Worse, in little fracas that does not have mortal results, the public gives its approval. They would ask the score in a rumble and applaud those who did the greater damage over the other party. This would, in turn, feed the frat members’ ego and give the fraternities more reasons to join a rumble.

Voice of the victims

Fraternity violence has destroyed many lives. There are many students now staying in jail. There are many more who were expelled from schools. There were those who met their untimely deaths.

Yet, despite fraternity’s hotheadedness and penchant for violence, the fraternity members are all victims here. The members are drowned in a culture they themselves do not understand. The frat members are like moths playing in the fire. They never know when their wings will be smoldered.

The victims should speak now. They should not meekly accept their fate. Their experiences should not simply be sad stories in the frat lore. The thought that their doom is a simple consequence of being a frat man should be shattered. The victims are not mere accidents. They are flesh and blood who would carry the bitter experience throughout their lives. They should break the code of silence and voice their concern over the growing barbarism of the institution that they belong to. The victims should speak saying that all those who ever held a paddle and lead pipe are all guilty to the fate that had befallen them. The victims must initiate the voice: the enemy here is not the “other” fraternity, the enemy is ourselves. The culprit is the culture of violence that engulfs the fraternity system.

Here is the first voice. –

Raymund Narag is an Assistant Professor at Southern Illinois Univesity and a former Fullbright Fellow at Michigan State University.

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