The lines between initiation and indoctrination may be one in the same
Cults have long fascinated people, and I’m certainly no exception. Interested in why people join cults, why they give up all their money and freedom to one person — I’ve ventured down more than one rabbit hole this week.
What struck me though, was not how far away and ‘otherly’ cult members seemed, but how similar some of the tools cults use to gain members are to how Greek life functions.
This week in particular, with the TikTok sensation of ‘Bama Rush and the issues at the ‘Fiji’ house at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln have highlighted the similarities.
For those who aren’t familiar, the newest internet sensation has been the wild and hard-to-believe practices surrounding Rush Week at the University of Alabama. From ritualistic chants to intensely detailed descriptions of Rush outfits that run in the thousands of dollars to accents too thick to unpack, #BamaRush has been occupying the minds of many.
Despite the smiles on their faces and obvious enthusiasm, many have questioned what could drive so many people to be a part of such an expensive, at-times judgemental and often-parodied process.
Then, at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln, protests have been happening every night outside of the Phi Gamma Delta house, or ‘Fiji’ house, after Max Helm, a member, raped and assaulted a 17-year-old on her first day of college.
It’s hard not to look on with awe at ‘Bama Rush or the members of the Fiji house who continue to remain, or even make videos laughing at protesters demanding justice outside.
Situations like these had me associating the idea of a cult not with linen clothing and religious intensity, but with sorority chants, due fees and constant beckoning calls to “Go Greek”.
In comparison to these two national stories, North Dakota State’s Greek life is positively tame. With only four sororities and eleven fraternities, NDSU has a relatively small Greek system — and certainly one that seems to lack the extravagance, intensity or even intolerant views often associated with college Greek life.
Still, comparing the seven elements of indoctrination used by cults to Greek life as a whole, and the views of some NDSU student’s provides insight into how even our Greek life community has a certain likeness to cults.
Cults typically attract individuals at a crossroads or transition. Nothing says transition quite like going from the safety of your childhood home to the independent world of college.
Rush week on college campuses often takes place before classes even start. As Melissa Dittman of the American Psychological Association, says, “Cult leaders have a way of preying upon vulnerable people and roping them into situations they do not fully understand.”
While plenty of organizations on campus do recruiting during the first few weeks of school, the secrecy and financial permanency of joining a fraternity or sorority seems to set them apart.
A junior NDSU student and member of a sorority on campus who wished to go by Jenny explained, “Yeah, I mean, if I understood how expensive it was gonna be and how easy it was to make friends not involved with them [the sorority] I would probably not have done it.”
The Soft Sell
The next step cults take is slowly introducing an individual to the cult in a way that is often comforting, unassuming or even fun. In cults, these may be yoga classes, weekend retreats or weekly meetings. Of course, if Greek life were a cult, the soft sell would be Rush Week.
Events like cook-outs are often offered to students as a way to introduce them to sororities and fraternities.
As Jenny said, “Rush is fun. I like my friends, or I guess, sorority sisters, a bunch. But it’s weird, it’s like people who complain all the time are telling these girls how much they’ll love our sorority. Like, a lot of us don’t even love each other.”
A New Reality
This stage of indoctrination involves the switch from the unassuming to becoming fully enveloped in the culture of a cult.
In the case of Greek life, this might be weekly meetings in fancy-dress, parties which require new outfits and social events throughout the year.
M. Rousselet in the journal for Psychiatry Research said, “[A]ctive involvement in the cultic group could lead to affective dependence on the cult leader or the group, which explains why people stay despite threats to their physical and psychological integrity.”
The more involved people become with these groups, the harder it is to leave.
Jack, a former member of a fraternity on campus said, “Yeah, I mean it went from cookouts and football to like big parties… I didn’t talk to anyone, friends, outside of my fraternity for like, two years.”
A common change in the reality for many individuals is when Greek life goes from fun activities to hazing. NDSU Greek life has a strict no-hazing policy.
As Jake explained, “We didn’t have any hazing, but you hear stuff. It wasn’t a secret that some frats did and some frats didn’t. But, I mean, it wasn’t a secret that some frats were also cool with getting girls drunk and doing bad stuff… What are you gonna do? You report stuff but they have money and connections and stuff. It doesn’t matter.”
Idolizing the Leader
Most cults are led by a common leader. This is one of the many aspects that set cults apart from Greek life. Yet, just like cults idealize their leader as being the best and most trustworthy, most fraternities and sororities seem to advertise a strong belief that they are ‘the best’.
As Dittman explains, “Members are taught to stop the doubts about the cult that enter their minds and replace them with good thoughts about the cult or with a key phrase that they repeat over and over.” This certainly brings the Alabama chanting into a new perspective.
Jenny also explained the difficulty that came with criticizing her sorority: “Not me, but another girl didn’t want to live in the house and she basically got like bullied into it. And it’s thousands of dollars. You say something for yourself and that’s what happens.”
The ideology spread is that what group members believe is right, but more importantly, anyone who says otherwise is wrong.
Steven Hassan, a former cult member and counselor said, “Cults often use behavior modification on followers, such as thought-stopping techniques and instilling an ‘us-versus-them’ mindset.”
Whether it’s other fraternities or sororities, or those not involved in Greek life, there does seem to be an in crowd and out crowd of fraternities and sororities. Jake explained this more, “These guys are my best friends, but then I quit and I’m all the sudden the worst person. Like even people who said they understood wouldn’t do anything. It sucked.”
In Netflix’s “Explained” episode on cults, they explained, “The fundamental human desire to be a part of something can override even our own perception of reality.”
Peer pressure and the need for community is a huge contributor to cult participation and retention.
As Ben, another former fraternity member who quit says, “The most common criticism is that you’re paying for your friends. And they tell you that you’re not, but then like, the minute you’re done they stop talking to you.”
The threat of losing friends, losing the money you spent in dues, which can be several thousand dollars, is always looming.
More than this, there is peer pressure within fraternities and sororities that allow them to function. It’s how intense hazing, which has even led to death at some colleges, and problematic practices are established and accepted.
For example, Ben explained a disturbing trend on campus, “I’d say, at least every fraternity on campus has a least one member who is known not to be trusted with women… It’s always like you bring it to attention and then they say, like, ‘Don’t leave them alone’…There’s chapters that will deal with it themselves. And it’s not formal if you know what I mean.”
Are Greek Organizations Cults?
Of course not.
Listen, there are many similarities — clearly too many. But there are also important friendships, opportunities and rewarding experiences that come out of Greek life.
Not to mention the last element of indoctrination cults have: a charismatic, narcissistic leader. That’s not to say that sororities and fraternities don’t have charismatic — or even narcissistic — members, because they definitely do, but they don’t have the kind that could convince people to take the drastic measures that cult members do.
Jenny said it well, “There’s problems but I’d still probably rush again if it were cheaper. It’s not perfect but it’s better than it used to be.”
There are obviously issues of manipulation in forcing people to spend money and partake in certain aspects of Greek life. There are concerns revolving around sexual assault and sexism in general. The Greek life system and the expense makes it an experience that, for the most part, is only available to those privileged enough to afford it.
Problems in Greek life are present, and cult indoctrination looks a little too similar to initiation, but that doesn’t mean these aren’t problems that can’t be worked on.