A Different Approach to Hazing On Campus
On April 12, 2012 Mr. Snowden Wright wrote an article in the NY Daily News he calls “In Defense of Hazing.” It was written in response to the situation at Dartmouth’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) chapter brought to light by Mr. Andrew Lohse that described activities that would shock the conscience of most people. Having dealt with fraternity hazing in every capacity imaginable (I was hazed, I hazed, I helped students stand up against hazing, I held organizations accountable for hazing, and I have helped organizations defend themselves against charges of hazing) I imagine that the two positions in these articles will define the discourse in the foreseeable future, with most people understandably falling into Mr. Lohse’s camp. It is hard to defend Mr. Wright’s article as is written, but I do think the fact that his article is not wholly without merit should be discussed. The problem I see is that hazing is not a “thing” with a singular definition as much as it is a continuum, and there should be some latitude for allowing adult students to make informed decisions even if those decisions are not in accordance with public values.
I do not want to be misunderstood here: I think that hazing that intentionally causes physical or lasting mental harm is criminal. I think hazing activities that are done against someone’s will, especially after that will is voiced, are criminal. I think that forced consumption of alcohol is inherently dangerous, and is therefore criminal. I think that thoughtless hazing, even if not inherently dangerous, pretty much ensures that a fraternity (or sorority) declines and the organizations is fragmented. It is counterproductive to team building, and becomes mere sport for those hazing rather than an educational experience to increase the connection of an individual to a fraternity’s values and brotherhood.
I do not, however, think that “requiring” someone to endure activities meant to be challenging, funny, or that test someone’s resolve for joining an organization for life is inherently bad. By treating hazing as a singular thing where the only “positive” action is to not do it, we do the same thing we do with drinking. College students, and most adults, can differentiate between “Beam lines” where a group of 9 men have to finish a 5th of alcohol by the time it reaches the last brother, and wearing shirts with nicknames on them. Pretending otherwise forces hazing into the dark corner of private spaces where the people doing it cannot seek help to ensure that their actions do not fall into the reckless or criminal categories.
There are many people who never joined a Greek organization and for whom the idea of being woken up at 3 am by a voice on the phone shouting “CREED!” at you seems ridiculous. The idea that you would stand in a room of people you call your “brothers” as they yell at you and pelt you with bread rolls or green beans as you try to get the names of the founding fathers right, seems inane and against the very notion of “higher education.” We had pledge pins. We had nicknames. We cleaned the house after every party by 9am. We had midnight meetings at the fraternity house. We had to clean bathrooms and the (much grosser) stove vent hood. We were always “on call,” and if anyone ever called and asked us a question or needed us we had to do it…if we wanted to be in the fraternity. And we did.
And therein lies the crux of the problem. For some reason we do not think that 18 year old men and women have the ability to say “no” to things they find objectionable. Most laws and policies on hazing state that the willingness of the people hazed to the hazing activities is not a defense to the hazing. That clause is there to ensure that the victims of horrific acts are not pressured into saying they did it voluntarily, and to protect them from harassment and bullying. It’s a good clause. Unfortunately it overshoots and makes it so that NO activity that is determined to be hazing can ever be defended. If you get accused of “hazing” for something ‘light’ (e.g. a photo scavenger hunt) then the only defense to it is to lie. Pledges saying “it was the best time we’ve had” are not a defense. “The brothers did it too” is not a defense. If anything called hazing happened it is hazing, and all of the sudden you’re in the same category as the students in AEPi from Boston University. So you lie.
And what about drinking? As I said, I do not believe that people should be forced to drink…ever. If someone is drinking, and they had enough, then not only should they be able to stop, but the people with whom he drinks should encourage stopping. However, we all know there are some big drinkers out there. (Whether or not there should be is a totally different discussion.) They are in fraternities and sororities. They are on the rugby team. They are in the military. They go to law school. They are teachers. They are priests. They were me and my friends, and when I went looking for a fraternity I looked for guys I thought were interesting, that had women I liked who liked the fraternity, and that liked to have a good time because that’s what I wanted. It’s why everyone in my pledge class joined, and so when the challenge was put out there on a Saturday afternoon to do a “kill a keg” against brothers we had to rock/paper/scissors to see who would have to sit it out. We were pledges but they were brothers so how was our participation hazing while theirs was just a stupid decision?
I think Mr. Wright tries to defend activities that are hard to stomach (no pun intended) but he does make a few points worth noting. First, we need to separate from the definition of “hazing” those things that are normative behavior of at least a subset of the student population. Let’s stop pretending that making people wear pledge pins or clean the place they hang out is the same thing as duct taping them in a room, beating them and throwing fish sauce on them. Let’s stop pretending that making the 10 newest people in an organization work a formal is the same thing as throwing feces at them. And let’s stop pretending that the definition of “forced” activity should be defined by the person who incorrectly understood his or her limits. It’s called paying your dues, training, preparation, or 100 other euphemisms in the other contexts in which it’s found.
(This is the part of this blog where I feel obligated to remind everyone that I am NOT condoning all the stuff I mentioned above like beatings, dangerous exposure to the elements, forced criminal activity, forced consumption of alcohol, etc.)
Every one of the “broad” hazing types is found in “adult” life. When you start in student affairs you will likely be “on call” at least a few times a semester. That means you carry a cell phone with you at all times and, no matter when someone calls you, you have to be ready to do whatever is necessary. If you work in student activities you’re probably the person who handles “alternative programming” which means you work weekend nights until someone new comes in and you no longer have to do it. If you work in a blue-collar job or you’re a server you get the worst shifts. When you play a sport you don’t get a “choice” about calisthenics. You do wind sprints, you go to the gym, you do push ups, and you frequently do them until you either throw-up, or wish you did. When you go to college, at least once a semester, there’s a time when every class you have schedules the biggest tests at the same time so you have to lose sleep and memorize extra information so you “pass” and can move on (i.e. finals.)
It probably seems stupid to compare these things to hazing because they are “part of the job” or “what you signed up for.” They are usually for a higher purpose (e.g., student safety, vocational advancement, more money, etc.) and people know what they’re getting into. The other people doing it have already “paid their dues,” and if all of the sudden we insisted that the new server got every holiday off and the 10-year person had to work them it would be unfair.
So why can’t 18 year old men and women make the same choice? I know enough development theory to understand that they are not in the same place as 1st year legal associate who has to work 70 hours a week to bill 40, but to me that means they need reinforcement of their right to say “no” and “opt out,” not that the should be protected from choice. It means that Greek life would be better served if we came up with broad “permitted hazing” categories, and an organization could talk over their plans with the people who know the most about the topic. When someone was recruited by an organization, the fact that there will be ordeals and what those ordeals are would be part of that recruitment. Do you want to join an organization that has no late night or weekend activities? No problem! Here are 2 that do that. Do you like to do those things Mr. Wright characterized as being like “Fear Factor?” No problem! Here are 3 that push you physically and enjoy trying to gross each other out. Do you like being hit and forced to drink until you might die? Sorry, we don’t have those because the ones that did were rightfully closed.
We let 18 year olds join things they know might kill them (the military, Alaskan fishing boats, the porn industry) but we can’t trust them to speak up in a system that would vocalize expectations, have an established method and procedure of opting out, and trained professionals to oversee the activities? Of course we can.
So why don’t we? The answer, I believe, is simple. Law suits and insurance costs. It’s much easier to ban an activity than it is to try to nail down some acceptable limit, if your goal is to prevent the school (or national organization) from getting in trouble. So schools say they have a “zero tolerance” for hazing and, when they catch an organization doing some of the lighter stuff they act with furious vengeance, but that doesn’t actually save them from anything. Even if they were as strict as possible and that was effective, it doesn’t shield them from liability. What it does is forces the worst offenders to hide themselves even more effectively. Administration does not work 24 hours a day, and even if they did they could not be everywhere at once. Let each school determine its own lines and enforce them. We rate movies, TV and video games, and “obscenity” is not every piece of skin shown on TV. Sure, some college students are going to agree to do things you would have NEVER done, but that’s their choice. They should be protected from surprise, and from inherently or recklessly dangerous activity, but everything else should be up to them.
That being said, SAE at Dartmouth did some nasty crap, and kudos to Mr. Lohse for saying “enough.”
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