Some Thoughts on Hazing

Hazing has been in the local press lately (  Two Greek organizations comprising BU students have been accused of hazing — one sorority that was affiliated with the school, and one fraternity that was an unofficial fraternity organization.  This post isn’t about the merits of fraternity life — that is something I have enormously complicated feelings about, most of which probably aren’t objective.  Instead, this was based on a conversation I had with some freshmen: “People know they are going to get hazed.  It’s voluntary, so people shouldn’t get in trouble.  The schools in the south — fraternity hazing is expected.”

I disagree that this behavior is necessarily “voluntary” when there are so many factors in play.  Consider the person in the abusive relationship — sure, they could “just leave” — but how many do?  Human nature is to feel like you belong, and when an unequal power structure comes into play, the act is even more coercive.  On a school where the social scene is defined by Greek life — what does it mean if you are not a part of that organization?  The Dartmouth case illustrated in Rolling Stone provides an example — — if your social future depends on joining an organization, and in joining an organization you have to do humiliating, degrading, and potentially illegal things — is it voluntary?

Even if the stakes aren’t so high — even if the social scene isn’t defined by that organization — the connections you make in these sort of “brotherhood” organizations, whether they are Greek, or sports teams, or even theatre clubs, are necessary to be exceptionally successful.  The alumni of Greek organizations offer myriad professional opportunities.  To play sports professionally, you need to play at the lower levels.  People are forced to “deal with” the cost — potentially traumatizing events that are somehow vindicated by the end result, success (social, financial, etc.).

This isn’t voluntary.  It’s coercive, and even if a student  decides to pledge a fraternity, or join a team, the motivations going into that decision are far more complex than just personal choice.  Often, that same student will perpetuate the cycle for the next pledge class, and so on and so on ad infinitum.  There are multiple levels of dehumanizing and destructive psychological effects of being both the victim and the perpetrator of hazing, and to understate them as a simple matter of choice seems to be to be an oversimplification.

The strong hazing laws present in Massachusetts and elsewhere, much like the recent focus on bullying, are working to rectify some gruesome human behaviors that have become normalize as something — a rite of passage, perhaps — or a “cross to bear” that should never have been our burden.  The fact that “hazing happens everywhere” or “everyone is bullied” is a point in favor of, not against, these acts of legislation — objectifying our fellow man should never be considered normative.

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