Freedom And the Greek Life Referendum

The prospect of a referendum to ban a set of student groups should is not something that sat easily with me at first. We must always be concerned when the majority seeks to impose its will on a minority, when any freedom to associate is challenged. The question of whether Greek life should be banned at Swarthmore will soon be put to students, but in the meantime we wonder whether having a referendum at all is just.

Would it not be an infringement on the liberties of fraternity and sorority members to ban their organizations? It most certainly would, anyone who says otherwise is flat out lying. This does not, however, mean that it would be a bad thing. It could be, and has been, argued that there would be social benefits to removing Greek life, that the culture they create is objectionable. These are valid arguments. Ironically though, for a place as liberal as Swarthmore, they are conservative.

A ban on Greek life could be interpreted as being not too dissimilar from bans on communist organizations in the ‘50s, organizations that were accused of promoting a culture and politics opposed to American values. These are arguments readily dismissed today, yet similar arguments are being made now about Greek life.

I find it unreasonable to ban organizations because of their culture. No one could argue that Christian, Muslim, Jewish, conservative, and liberal student groups should be banned because of the values they promote, it would be all sorts of illegal. Were culture the only problem with Greek life, I would in no way support the referendum.

Culture is not the only issue, the issue is actually one of liberty. I said before, as it has been argued by opponents of the referendum, that it would be a restriction of liberty to ban Greek life; what is ignored is that allowing Greek life to stay is also a restriction of liberty.

When an organization has sole control over a physical space, it is a restriction on the liberties of everyone else: that space is no longer open to them. When an organization is closed, it is a restriction liberty: not anyone may join as they please. Such spaces do not exist at Swarthmore, with the exception of the fraternity houses. Such organizations, when they do exist, must show clear and compelling reasons that they must stay closed, and generally also support similar open groups. To SQU there is the QSA, to SASS there is SASA.

I doubt closed groups would be closed in a less prejudicial society. The groups that are closed represent those who are historically, or currently, oppressed, and so they feel the need for a safe space. This reason seems compelling. Were such histories of oppression further removed, were it not ongoing, there would be no need for closed groups. The distinction is clear, SQU and SASS are certainly reasonable closed groups, but who would seriously support a closed group for white, heterosexual men? The idea is ridiculous. Closed groups are there for specific purposes, to serve specific interests. What interest is served by keeping fraternities and sororities closed?

There is no compelling reason is there for fraternities to be exclusionary other than exclusivity itself. This can be shown with a simple thought experiment. If fraternities and sororities ceased to be exclusive, if they were open to anyone at anytime, would they still be fraternities and sororities? These are groups built on exclusion, and exclusion is a restriction of liberty.

The compelling argument to allow the referendum, and to ban Greek life, is one of liberty. Yes, liberty would be lost by banning them, but it would be gained as well. The spaces currently reserved for the fraternities could be turned open to the entire community, so that any group could meet there, any group could host events there. This would result in an expansion of liberty.

Opening spaces and groups to be free and open to the public, that is encouraging freedom. It is not in the interests of freedom that closed groups and closed spaces persist. It does not further freedom to allow groups to charge membership dues. This closes groups off, makes them exclusive, and makes the choices of students less free.

Urging the abolition of Greek life on moralistic grounds is wrongheaded and dangerous, it smacks of censorship and forced conformity. We should stand by freedom of association. We should seek to open the campus, not allow places to be closed. We should ensure that any student is free to join any group they wish to, regardless of who they are, or how much they can pay. Fraternities stand in the way of these freedoms. They are not beacons of freedom, but restrictions on it.

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