A Look at Hazing as a Rite of Passage

Dylan Dellisanti ’14
Dylan Schlaak ’14

This past Sunday’s UPLS debate, “Hazing is a legitimate rite of passage,” incited the kind of interest that comes from a particularly controversial topic. As members of an institution where Greek Life is prominent, the question of the legitimacy of hazing is a pertinent one for all of us. At first glance, it’s easy to think of hazing solely as an abusive and illegitimate practice. However, a critical analysis of hazing can lead us to less absolutist conclusions.
It is first important to ask: what is hazing? Hazing is a term to describe a variety of actions, usually done to a person, that necessarily include some form of duress. This duress can be categorized into three groups: physical, psychological, and reputational. In social fraternities, hazing induces pledges to perform activities that they would not normally do. With this definition laid out, it is easy to see why many are opposed to hazing.
However, hazing ought to be viewed in the context of its functions. One function of hazing is as a means toward the end of building a bond between pledges and brothers, and more importantly, toward the end of causing the pledges to build bonds with each other. Fraternity brothers are bringing their pledges into their society, performing the same rituals on them that were done to the brothers of past generations. In doing so, the pledges are able to share a common experience of the group, making them part of that group, and in special community with each other.
Hazing performs another important function for the group. Hazing allows the members of the fraternity to discover what sort of person a pledge is based on how he acts during the process. Fraternity brothers face an information problem when bringing young men into their group. Typically, they have only known these men for a semester at most. They have intentions of allowing them into a more or less permanent bond with themselves. It’s easy to see why the cost of initiating the wrong pledges as fraternity brothers can be very high. Therefore, we can expect fraternities to place their pledges under duress, as it is a process that can provide information about the pledge’s character and personality, and can help the fraternity make more informed decisions.
So, given the benefits and legitimate uses of hazing, what should be said about all of the instances where hazing has clearly gotten out of control? Certainly, there are many cases that prove that not all instances of hazing are legitimate, so we need to be able to distinguish between legitimate and illegitimate types of hazing.
Firstly, the practice of hazing can be illegitimated if it causes lasting duress in the form of permanent harm. If enduring physical, psychological, or reputational harm for the people involved is a side-effect of the actions of hazing, then the hazing cannot be considered legitimate. Another important consideration of the side-effects of hazing is the effect it has on the college as a whole. A school can suffer great reputational costs if a hazing incident turns tragic, so it is in the school’s best interest to eliminate these sorts of negative externalities that stem from illegitimate hazing.
Secondly, legitimate hazing cannot remove the option of exit, or any other key component of basic human autonomy, from the pledge. This includes extreme cases of coercion. Imagine that some case of hazing goes horribly wrong and becomes public knowledge. It would be easy to anticipate the defensive statement, coming from the people responsible, that “he was free to leave at any time, but he chose to stay,” but let’s be realistic.
In these more extreme cases, a pledge has two options available to him. He can either agree to undergo severe duress in the form of hazing, or he can accept the ostracism of all of his friends as a result of his refusal to undergo the hazing. This type of coercion increases the cost of his refusal dramatically, which will leave the pledge with no easy choice. If the pledge is forced into accepting the treatment of hazing on pain of having no friends, then his autonomy has been violated beyond what is acceptable and permissible through legitimate forms of hazing.
This article is not an apology for the abuses of hazing. It can certainly be a wicked and despicable practice. However, we seek to show that this issue is also not black-and-white. An absolutist view that hazing is always wrong is likely a view that misunderstands the process. College administrations, because of the aforementioned externality problems, have the right and the necessity to regulate fraternities, but such regulations against the more extreme forms of hazing should be established with recognition of the positive functions of the process.

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