Every day I walk on campus at Loyola Marymount University (LMU) and see segments of my history. I see Greek letters emblazoned on the chests of students, eager to signal their involvement in fraternity brotherhood and sorority sisterhood. Proud columns reminiscent of ancient Athenian architecture greet learners of all backgrounds as they enter the Foley Building. Even the pearly-white exterior of Sacred Heart Chapel, thrust into contrast with LA’s ever-blue sky, reminds me of the restaurants and houses in Kythera, Greece, where my cousins maintain a small hotel, that old Greek stereotype, to this very day.
The first fraternity, Phi Beta Kappa, was founded on Dec. 5, 1776. It made sense for those students to adopt Greek letter designations. A knowledge of Greek and Latin – of the classics, of antiquity – was considered a hallmark of an educated mind. But everywhere I look around campus, I see students wearing Greek letters they don’t know how to pronounce. “Bay-tuh thay-tuh pie?” Not quite, try again.
Many modern-day fraternities, despite a verbal commitment to higher learning, come with the unintended consequences of hazing, drinking, drug use, sexual assault/rape, and things of that nature. When people think of the contemporary fraternity, they envision outrageous parties, having sex in excess, doing drugs, and other reckless pastimes.
Thus the question has to be asked: Given the disparity between modern ‘Greek life’ and the original designations of sorority and fraternity life, is the term as accurate today as it once was?
For the average fraternity man, there is a modern-day emphasis on cracking more beers than books. And that’s no concern of mine, unless you do so while wearing those noble letters.
Evidently the line is somewhere, and it is in the court of those with an understanding of both camps to decide where to draw it. Is assigning the term Greek Life offensive to ethnic Greeks? Are toga parties an overlooked instance of cultural appropriation? Is pronouncing the letters flawlessly a prerequisite for wearing them? In my estimation, the answer is no. No, those in Greek Life need not become experts on all aspects of Greek culture in order to honor the soil that cultivated ancient history, priceless philosophy and eternal religion. There is nothing wrong with the use of Greek culture – the problem is the misuse of Greek culture.
I sat down with Greek-American politician, attorney, and urban planner Dow Constantine, who is serving his third term as King County Executive, to further explore this line of reasoning.
“It is well for those of us who have the luxury of time and education to lift up our connection to ancient Greek civilization, recognizing that the Greeks’ contributions belong not only to us, but to all who are culturally, to one extent or another, part of the Western Tradition,” said Constantine. “I question whether borrowing something from 2,500 years ago, from a culture that is so thoroughly entwined in the roots of our own, can really be considered cultural appropriation.”
Constantine brings up several important points: for those who don’t know about Greek culture, it is a mistake on the part of the sorority or fraternity for not educating their members. If they want to use the term Greek Life, and want to associate with Greek culture, the least they could do is be somewhat educated on it.
Here’s a sobering statistic: Since 2000, there have been more than 50 hazing-related deaths in the United States. And, although an overwhelming majority of women do not report being sexual assaulted, studies show that sorority women are 74% more likely to experience sexual assault than other college women. I want my roots to condemn, not endorse, these tragedies.
LMU’s Director for Modern Greek Studies, Christina Bogdanou, PhD, was eager to share her thoughts on the issue. Bogdanou is from Athens, Greece and has taught at LMU since 2001.
“It is the questionable behavior that concerns me, not the use of the term,” said Bogdanou. “Whenever we participate in any communal activity, we should have respect for what it represents and for everyone involved.”
Once again, it is the misuse of Greek culture, not necessarily the use of it, that is the problem. I don’t have any quarrel with students who use the phrase Greek Life or wear the letters proudly, but it is critical for those that do to espouse the culture they are borrowing from and be educated on it, rather than misrepresent it completely.
You don’t need to know The Oresteia cover to cover. You don’t need to know difference between the Battle of Thermopylae and the Battle of Marathon. But you are expected to uphold the honor, dignity, and truth of eternal philosophy and democracy when you wear those letters on your chest.
The Greeks have certainly gifted quite a bit to the world, and we feel honored that the world wants to recognize our contributions. I look forward to a continued exchange between my people and the rest of civilization, till the end of time and unto the ages of ages.
Chris Benis, 20, is a Greek-American from Seattle, WA. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the Los Angeles Loyola, LMU’s student-run news publication.