Hazed and Confused

April 13, 2012


I remember with a fond shudder the time I shotgunned a Corona on East 13th Street in New York City’s Chinatown at 2 a.m. I was with my cousin, and this was his way of testing me, seeing if I could cut it as an adult in his world. And I did it faster than he did, even though I think beer is disgusting. In that moment, I went from nerdy younger cousin to…nerdy younger cousin who is cool enough to hang with the guys. In that moment I was hazed, I complied, and I got what I wanted: acceptance.

According to multiple studies, hazing instills in us a loyalty through a commonality of experiences. Though the rituals might be boorish or gross, each person in the group had to go through them, and each subsequent newcomer has a duty to also endure them to be “in.” One could draw parallels to Stockholm Syndrome–we feel bound to those who have hurt us. But when we start to make these rituals cruel to the point of hurting each other for perverse satisfaction, loyalty is born less of unifying experience and more of unifying trauma. In essence, hazing that humiliates someone to tears binds them to the group because he or she has paid the psychological fee and is now entitled to membership–and entitled to hurt the next wave of newcomers, to make them suffer similarly.

Recent news reports aside, hazing is neither a new phenomenon nor restricted to Greek life–any group with a exclusion-oriented membership model participates in some sort of hazing ritual. Greek life is only a case study. Fraternities and sororities require a certain look, personality, and mindset from their members, and these elements can be tested in hazing. It is the age-old adage, “If you aren’t willing to do this one thing, maybe you don’t belong.” It is wrong because it exploits, in gory form, many college newcomers’ deepest fear: the fear of rejection. And it uses it to excuse, in essence, torture. Hazing is not about what you can offer, but rather about what you can withstand.

Alcohol is only one part of dangerous hazing rituals.| Photo courtesy of Darwin Bell via Wikimedia Commons

My greatest insights into the hazing phenomenon have been from friends who have undergone it in some way. Though their experiences are all unique, common threads have been the ritualistic nature of the hazing (implying cultish acceptance and loyalty) and its recurrence every year, unquestioned because “they had to go through it before.” It’s just, plainly put, paying the mean forward.

Further, these actions hinder anyone struggling with mental illness or those without a strong support base on which to rely when recovering from this ordeal. What if you are recovering from an addiction problem and you want to join, say, a sports team to expand your social network–but their hazing involves alcohol? Your problems are not theirs–you aren’t welcome. Even the existence of hazing in a group is exclusionary.

It is in the leap from normal amounts of social adjustment to the lengths of shame, physical and emotional victimization, and systematic objectification that I find deeply problematic. It is one thing to have to learn how a group of friends or peers operates, to start to be invited to their parties and understand their mindsets. It is another thing entirely to do what a group wants out of fear.

Why can’t we have more groups that are welcoming instead of discriminatory, groups united over a common set of interests and goals rather than the mentality that you either cut it or you’re out? We aren’t in college to get rejected over and over again– that’s what the real world is for. The magic about BU is the diversity; every student probably has at least five student groups with which they might mesh well. We don’t have to homogenize and filter each other through hazing rituals. As I said to a friend of mine who is a member of a fraternity at Boston University, “It’s okay to not want to have done what you felt compelled to do. We’re better than this.”