On September 14, 2017, Maxwell Gruver—a Louisiana State University freshman and Phi Delta Theta fraternity pledge—died from a potential hazing incident. The East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office said his death was caused by “acute alcohol intoxication with aspiration.” In response, the Louisiana State University police issued arrest warrants for ten Phi Delta Theta members, as they investigated the role of hazing in the matter. Gruver’s death comes on the heels of the February 3, 2017 death of Tim Piazza—a Penn State University, Beta Theta Pi fraternity pledge—who had been forced to drink a toxic amount of alcohol during an alleged hazing ritual. Their deaths fit within a narrative, spanning generations, reaching a crescendo in recent decades, and showing no signs of abating. This loss of life, while hazing’s most egregious casualty, is but one of many—e.g., physical injury, psychological harm, criminal sanctions, and civil liability.
The most pressing question that Gruver, Piazza, and so many others’ hazing experiences raise is: “Why Is It So Hard to Stop?” That is a question I’ve grappled with for years. As a law school administrator and professor, lawyer and PhD social scientist, and fraternity man, I’ve spent almost 15 years studying hazing. This is especially so, though not exclusively, in the context of African American fraternities and sororities. For most of that period, my research focused on the theories and explanations already available to us on why hazing exists and persists. They were helpful in my thinking about the problem, but left me, like everyone else, feeling that most of the universe of answers was beyond my reach. So, a few years ago, I decided to look for answers in places hazing researchers and anti-hazing activists typically wouldn’t look. For 100 days, over the next year, I hope to share some of those insights, from the stories of hazing victims, to models used to frame difficult questions and find their answers, to research from an array of disciplines that shed new light on hazing.
As a starting point, one of the greatest challenges in finding answers to why hazing is so difficult to eradicate is because we seem prone to look for simple answers. We engage in the logical fallacy of the single cause—the erroneous belief that a problem is the result of one cause, when the problem stems from multiple causes. Often the person who has committed to this line of thinking frames an issue as being caused by factors that are insufficient to cause the issue on their own or have overstated the significance of one factor’s contribution to the issue. This fallacy occurs when the true cause or causes are unknown and it is falsely supposed that there is a single cause behind a phenomenon.
Unsurprisingly, when we discuss hazing’s root causes, researchers and advocates, as well as organizations and victims, hue to a handful of reasons. These reasons serve only as a fraction of the reasons we should be looking for. Imagine that the universe of answers that we need to adequately address hazing exist on a scale of zero to one hundred, and the answers currently at our disposal are at one on that scale. Even more, imagine that as things currently stand, we can only imagine a universe of answers from zero to five. In essence, where we currently are in the battle against hazing, we can’t even conceptualize the range of questions, let alone answers, that we need to in order to address the problem. My hope is that over the next year, we can substantially expand that universe.
Gregory S. Parks is currently working on a book about hazing in African American fraternities and sororities, tentatively titled Death March.