100 Days of Hazing: Day 11 – Truth and Controversy

On November 15, I had the opportunity to participate in a discussion about hazing on National Public Radio show 1A titled “Can We Stop Hazing?”. I said something, I’m sure, that was jarring for many listeners. By way of context, if this is the first post of mine that you’ve read in this series, I’m an Associate Dean and Professor of Law. I’ve published extensively on hazing over the past decade. I’ve worked as a trial consultant and expert witness in hazing cases. More importantly, I serve on the board of a non-profit that focuses on hazing prevention (HazingPrevention.org) and even wrote an amicus (friend of the court) brief for them in a state (Florida) Supreme Court hazing case. My comments on NPR, in short, noted that I had been hazed—violently—and that I had and have no regrets about the experience. In fact, it added value to my life and fraternal experience. Considering the variety of things, I said during the NPR interview, let me add more nuance and texture to my comments.

It’s a given, and I’ve written extensively about it, that hazing results in a variety of harms: death, physical injury, psychological trauma, criminal sanctions, civil liability, and the list goes on. However, that doesn’t negate my, and tens-of-thousands of other people’s, subjective experience of being hazed. Critics, and those who are anti-hazing advocates, can easily dismiss those who were hazed and look back fondly on the experience as foolish. Doing so, however, undermines those critics’ and advocates’ desire and efforts to reduce or end hazing. Noted Sociologist William I. Thomas once stated, “A situation is real if it is real in its consequences.” What he meant by that is that if a person’s beliefs—even if subjective—predicts behavior, we must seriously consider those beliefs if we are concerned with the resulting behavior. For example, if a person told you that they were hearing voices telling them to kill you, and they had a means to do so, it would be unwise for you to dismiss their thinking as foolish. If you did, it might be at your peril. In the context of hazing, to dismiss people’s even wholly subjective positive perceptions of that conduct and experience is also perilous.

I chose to be hazed even after being initiated into my fraternity without knowing fully what the experience would entail. I wanted the experience, for what I understood it would be, because I felt little attachment to my fraternity and the brothers with whom I was initiated. After being hazed, my personal experience was a deepened attachment to my fraternity and the brothers with whom I pledged. That was my personal reality. But even beyond that, research explains why people see value in being, and having been, hazed. For example, when people experience emotionally charged events, they may not understand their emotions in that context. As such, they may mislabel their feelings; what may really be fear may be construed as love. Also, adolescents have a particularly strong need for a sense of achievement, and overcoming real or perceived obstacles may fulfill that need.

Even beyond one’s own subjective reality, a wide variety of research supports people’s beliefs about the “value” of hazing. By way of example, first, more severe initiations foster greater liking for an organization (though when it is too severe, there can be a rebound effect, and the person may come to dislike the organization). In fact, in a study I conducted with Drs. Shayne Jones and Matthew Hughey, we found that in black fraternities and sororities, members who had been hazed were more likely to be financially active in the long-term than those who weren’t hazed. That finding was, generally surprising; however, it made sense in light of our finding that those who were hazed reported greater emotional commitment to their fraternity/sorority than those who weren’t hazed. Second, people who go through difficult experiences together may foster deep and strong bonds. Drs. Jones and Hughey found support for this in our study; there, we found that those who were hazed were more likely to remain in contact with their pledge brothers (or sisters) long-term than those who weren’t hazed. Third, intense experiences—even abuse—perpetrated by others can create strong in-group/out-group dynamics and solidify bonds among those within the in-group, here, pledges. Fourth, where individuals invest a lot in a relationship or experience, there’s a high likelihood that they will continue to invest.

My point isn’t that hazing is a good thing. I don’t defend it, and I don’t advocate it. Rather, as a pragmatist and researcher, I can step back and, hopefully, seek objective answers to questions. In short, I recognize that hazing produces mixed results. A few years ago, on another radio show, before I even had data and research at my fingertips, I acknowledged that I had no misgivings about my own experience being hazed. A listener of the show emailed me later. He didn’t disagree with my sentiments; however, he asked that I not be so honest. In his words, he asked me why I couldn’t engage in a bit of “propaganda,” why I couldn’t lie for the sake of helping to end hazing. I understand that most people want to approach hazing from a vantage-point that is convenient for them. But simply saying that hazing is problematic, or hazers are bad, or those who valued their hazing experience are foolish may be emotionally satisfying to the critic. It’s also unsophisticated, lacking in nuance, and inconsistent with the research. More importantly, as I told the man who emailed me many years ago, it also removes any possibility of tackling hazing where it lies.

For the people who and institutions that really want to address hazing, they should prepare to be made to feel uncomfortable by the truth. Starting from there will give all of us a running start on more meaningful solutions, preventative measures, and interventions. It may also give organizations the tools needed to create experiences and processes that commit members to the organization, its members, and ideals without the brutality and alcohol.

Gregory S. Parks is currently working on a book about hazing in African American fraternities and sororities, tentatively titled Death March.

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