The boy was crumpled up in a ball, his body half burrowed into the crevice where the wall of the school building met the gravel playground. He flailed his arms in a desperate attempt to ward off the rubber balls that ricocheted off the wall in rapid succession as we encircled him and pelted him relentlessly. We’d been tormenting him for some time now and had no fear of retribution. It didn’t matter that he’d done nothing to antagonize or offend us, his fellow fifth-graders. We were merciless.
That scene replayed itself in my mind last week as I watched the ESPN special “Outside the Lines: The Horror of Hazing.” Representing eight months of reporting, the program looked at the escalating savagery of high school athletics hazing, including two cases of sodomy. The stories were brutal and appalling, but not altogether surprising, given the long history of hazing and staggering number of hazing-related deaths and tragedies of recent years. Watching that program, I felt a wave of remorse; what we did to our classmate on the playground that day was one point on the continuum of violence and domination that includes hazing.
Hazing occurs in numerous arenas: across all grade levels and into college; in the military and pro and amateur athletics. A 2000 academic study found that hazing was prevalent in American high schools; nearly 50 percent of students who belonged to groups reported being hazed, and another 25 percent of that group was hazed before the age of 13. It’s hard to imagine that the problem hasn’t worsened in the years since then.
According to the National Study of Student Hazing, published in 2008, college is no better. Over half of college students involved in clubs, teams and organization experienced hazing – but nine out of 10 didn’t consider themselves to have been hazed. Of those who did, only five percent reported it to campus officials.
Hazing is a group activity, and it is generally spearheaded by strong personalities who set the tone and attract support. Our fifth grade pack was led by the most popular boy in our class – the alpha male, if you will. The strange thing was, the alpha wasn’t a bad kid; he was actually a wonderful person but at this moment he developed a short-lived penchant for cruelty. He instinctively homed in on the most vulnerable boy in our class and the rest of us eagerly followed his lead. Fortunately the boy’s mother and the school staff became aware of it and took action. The day after the playground incident the teacher called us into the administration office and said, “Look, you have got to let up on this kid. You are really hurting him, and it has to stop.” I have never forgotten that day.
While condemning hazing and bullying, I think it’s imperative that we go deeper, and try to understand the different forces that are fueling the violence and cruelty. That’s what I wanted to do in directing the film adaptation of Brad Land’s 2004 memoir “Goat,” which recounted his experience as a college fraternity pledge. Brad’s decision to join a frat came in the wake of a violent carjacking. He needed to find a way to reclaim his sense of manhood. Quiet and unassuming, Brad wasn’t a likely candidate for Greek life, but his charismatic brother Brett belonged to one of the most high profile frats on campus and his frat-mates agreed to give Brad a shot. In describing life at the house – from the over-the-top partying to the cruelty and humiliation of Hell Week and beyond ― Brad showed how the need for belonging, approval and camaraderie made it possible for these young men to engage in, countenance and endure behavior that sometimes went beyond the pale. There was very much a hierarchy in place with a select few senior frat bros acting as the alpha males who set the tone and keep the rest of the tribe in line.
For the actors who had to become these alpha males on set, including Nick Jonas, Gus Halper and Jake Picking, shooting the hazing scenes was a step into the unknown. They had a lot of props and a basic sense of how they were supposed to abuse the pledges but I didn’t really give them a stopping point. I just let the camera keep rolling. At one point we did a 14-minute take set in a basement involving physical abuse and intensely personal verbal abuse directed by Brett towards his brother. When I yelled cut I remember Nick slowly came out of the performative moment. He looked disturbed and I asked him if everything was ok. He told me that he’d become completely caught up in the whole “can-you-top-this” masculine energy of the scene. It had become real for him and that was scary. Nick was not alone in this feeling. For lifelong theater kids and performers, with very little experience with frats or hazing, it was sobering to realize they could be transformed into monsters within a matter of minutes.
One of the things people find baffling about hazing is that everyone involved ― hazers and hazees ― describe it as a bonding experience. I don’t think they’re rationalizing. The truth is that shared trauma ― warfare, natural disasters, grave illness, etc. etc. ― builds strong bonds between people. That holds even if that trauma is self-generated, like hazing. Complicating matters for everyone, but for men in particular, is that the way that we live now does not offer opportunities to interact with the world in a physically challenging or visceral way. So as a result, we look for camaraderie and meaning in other organizations and we create intentional communities. For young men without money, that community might be a gang. For middle class kids, it might be a college fraternity. In either case, you’ve got young males with a lot of hormonal energy coursing through them acting upon primal desires in an unsupervised environment and this can spell trouble.To add to this young men are confused, anxious about what is expected of them as males in the society. The model of the stay-at-home dad is widely accepted, and men are expected to be sensitive to the needs of others. But at the same time, there are still expectations centered on male strength/violence/aggression. For the most part pop culture tells men that if they get punched in the face, they should punch back. Which is what Brad Land didn’t do. But I think I’d be hard-pressed to not tell my son or daughter to punch back, as well.
How do go about changing a community model where strength is equated with dominance and violence? A few years ago, I read about a study of a baboon troop that lived in a forest near a tourist lodge in Kenya. In the early 1980s, the garbage pit outside the lodge was expanded and the troop’s most aggressive males began eating from the pit, using violence and intimidation to keep less aggressive males or females away from the pit. These males also abused the other inhabitants of the tribe in the usual alpha male ways, with high ranking males attacking and terrorizing lower ranking males. In 1983, there was an outbreak of bovine tuberculosis and by 1986 the contaminated meat had killed all the aggressive males.
The beta males became the guys who were breeding and running the show, if you will. Power did not go to their heads, and top ranking males didn’t go after weaker males. The males who developed under them, including adolescents who joined the tribe from other groups, behaved the same way. So within a few years, the culture of the baboon tribe changed, without any major genetic shifts.
Human beings have the capacity to change our cultures and ourselves. Our entire ability to thrive is grounded in empathy; it’s one of our greatest strengths as a species. If we can figure out how to value that trait, as opposed to the traits of aggression and domination, we’ll be a lot better off.
The kid we bullied in fifth grade was re-absorbed into our social group and by middle school everyone was friends again. We hung out together the summer before I left for college. He was taking a year off and going on a trip to Asia. One day we were in a big field in field in Vermont, resting against my car, smoking a joint and talking about being kids. I said rather casually, “Hey, sorry about what happened when we were kids, man. We were so mean to you.” He smiled and brushed it off as he exhaled, but I remember his face slightly shattered as he looked away for a moment.