The Authoritarian Backlash Against Hazing

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New state laws, proposed federal laws, zero-tolerance coalitions and repeated slandering of self-government highlight the hypocrisy in fraternity leaders’ attempt to use coercion against coercion.

Taking a “Test”

No lifeline candles remained. I incorrectly answered a fraternity trivia question. My emotions were in check as a brother led me out of the room into a holding area, but tears burst from my eyes the moment I sat down. Around me were others who failed the test, each dealing with their own emotions. None of us were to be initiated.

I had not realized how badly I had come to enjoy being a member of a fraternity until that moment. My mind was occupied with school, rowing, and the other organizations I had joined. The brother escort put his hand on my shoulder and said, “Trust me, everything will be okay.” He was right, and my dismissal from the room was all a part of a game (one some of my chapter brothers will probably hate to see written about in public).

Was I Hazed?

I didn’t think so. I recall once ignoring a question from the chapter president about why I deserved to be initiated. “Because I’m awesome,” I said, and I walked away. To me it seemed like the power was always in my hands. I was cocky until the moment I cried. In that moment, I realized that I needed others more than I cared to admit.

The other fraternities always seemed to have it worse, but I grew worried when, as I later administered that same “test,” some brothers showed signs of violence. Some threw chairs. One brother pretended to slap another. The sight of future initiates jumping in their seats, startled at the thought of being hit, made me wildly uncomfortable.

My First Night As A Delta Sig

We walked from the English building, where we officially accepted our invitations, to the chapter facility. Once outside, we removed our ties, secured them as blindfolds, and took part in the standard, by-the-book pinning ceremony of Delta Sigma Phi. It was, as far as I knew, by-the-book. Still, I spent more time wondering from which direction I would be suddenly pushed or hit to pay much attention to what was said.

Our fraternity now allows such ceremonies to take place without blindfolds, and we have even had parents present at one ceremony for a new chapter in Idaho. The fear of hazing always paralyzed me, and seeing my chapter veer in the direction of harming new members was too much for me, then the recruitment officer, to handle.

De-Escalating Hazing In A Fraternity Chapter

I knew it would be difficult to shut down the “test” we administered to new members, so I sought instead to change and codify how it took place. Most of the questions were nonsense, some were incorrect. A small group of brothers and I poured through our new member manual, The Gordian Knot, to compose truthful questions. We incorporated practical questions about chapter operations and the campus community. We hoped this would affect what was taught in New Member Education.

The test would be administered by executive board members and seniors in good standing. The President and risk officer could remove any brother who misbehaved. We forbade yelling, fake-slapping, and any stress-inducing behavior.

The rules were followed as long as I was a member. Most who make a career out of fraternity life would tell me I was hazed. Still, I do not feel worse off for that experience. There were other issues with my chapter, but that “test” was not one of my concerns.

Hazing is Bad. Mmkay?

Amid the hysteria driven by media personalities desperate for a scoop is a clouding of the issue with hazing. We are so caught up in the most tragic events that we associate hazing with only extreme scenarios. The definition of hazing; however, is rather broad.

I wonder what would happen if someone found out about our chapter’s test. . . would we have been shut down? Did we deserve to be shut down? What if I had more help in de-escalating the situation? Could I have made a bigger impact? (As far as I am aware my chapter no longer conducts the “test.”)

It does not matter. Hazing is bad, and deadly, no matter its form, and so it must be eradicated at all levels because it is bad and deadly. That is about as nuanced and thoughtful as fraternity leadership gets when discussing the matter.

The Hazing Crackdown

Like senior members of a chapter yearning to exert some control over their new members, fraternity leaders, politicians, the media, and anti-hazing special interests have resorted to the most authoritarian forms of eradication. Zero-tolerance policies, extensive lobbying for state and federal-level criminalization, and mandatory anti-hazing indoctrination education.

It all looks and sounds great because something is being done. Is that not what we all want when a young man is deprived of his right to life? Do we all not want something to be done? It is a decidedly macho approach to the hazing dilemma. Analyze the problem and strike while the iron is hot.

There is not time for persuasion, to look back at how successful or unsuccessful similar attempts have been in the past. Most hazing laws just wrap up already illegal things in the name of hazing. Students can’t torture one another or force others to consume things. Well, duh.

Our New Normal

The greatest thought leaders in the fraternity space will say that self-government has failed. On this topic, the progressive fraternity leadership agree with a former fraternity CEO and now expert anti-hazing witness, David K. Easlick. He may be banned from just about any high-level fraternity conference, but it is his advice we ultimately follow.

I wonder how it has worked. Deaths due to hazing have increased as new laws and policies have been passed. [1] We know that prohibition is a cause for more dangerous, underground activity. [2] Starting with “Why?” is the mantra of our era. [3]

Why do we keep getting the hazing equation wrong, then? How has the advice of hazing experts and gurus been so ineffectual? What might we do differently?

Why Hazing Exists, Continues & Is Immune To Current Policy.

Hazing is a form of systematic bullying in its most basic definition. The laws passed by all but 6 states typically use more specific, violent language, but the true issue with hazing is that it is bullying. Why do bullies bully? They want to exert influence and control and to improve their social status.

No one dies in the vast majority of hazing cases. For this reason, the hysteria around hazing seems overblown to many fraternity men and women. The public has incomplete information and assumes that millions of undergraduate men and women are in grave danger. This is because we have limited the relevance of hazing to situational tragedies.

Coercion

The real problem with hazing is that it is coercive. It does not teach new members to respect the fraternity experience and it does not teach young leaders how to be persuasive – a skill essential for a democratic/capitalist society. Hazing/bullying hurt one’s self esteem, and many find that the only way to repair their self esteem is to exert power and influence over others.

When these harmless hazing incidents go under the radar – because merely bringing them up would be a cause for investigations, expulsions, chapter closures and, in some cases, criminal proceedings – they go unchecked. We only find out that hazing exists when something goes terribly wrong. I should not need to remind you that the Beta Theta Pi chapter at Penn State was a model chapter until one of its members died.

Something must be done. We will shut you down if you don’t do something! Why aren’t you doing something?

Do what? No one knows, but if it is not written on paper then it might as well be nothing. If it is not supported by data (What kind of data? Any damn data, just give the kids a survey!) then it is nothing. Let’s write articles talking about how something must be done. That’s something, right?

The Five Exemplary Practices of Leadership

So most students/alumni do not see the harm in their hazing. It is the same situation for alcohol consumption. Most students will not die due to alcohol; they assume zero-tolerance policies are to protect others.

Let us look at the Five Exemplary Practices of Leadership identified by Kouzes & Posner and taught at just about every damn fraternity leadership program. How are we doing?:

  1. Model the Way – We combat hazing through coercive means. Hazers are mercilessly and publicly shamed. Zero-tolerance is the way of the future. Students see how we respond to hazing and take note of our tactics. Why tolerate a pledge who didn’t show up for a meeting on time? Why not demand complete uniformity?
  2. Inspire a Shared Vision – Anything that can be considered hazing is not tolerated. Want to debate the topic? No. You will adhere to our shared vision.
  3. Challenge the Process – This is what all of the experts and gurus tell us to do. People have researched this. What do you know? You are just a student or an alumnus wrapped up in the glory days. Let us write the rules. Just follow them.
  4. Enable Others To Act – If things get dangerous, please turn your friends in. They may hate you, and they may go to jail, but someone might die, and you don’t want that on your conscience, do you? Do not try to de-escalate the situation. To provide resources teaching you to do so would put us at risk of a lawsuit. Just tell us what is wrong and we will take care of it.
  5. Encourage The Heart – You are criminals. Bye criminals. We’re going to let internet trolls publish your address and slander you.

The Word Hazing is More Destructive than “Frat” or “Pledge”

If you read many of my old posts about hazing you might notice that I specifically refer to “dangerous hazing.” That is the urgent cause. Now; however, I realize that hazing has become one of those topics which are impossible to discuss/debate.

Some people are right and anyone who disagrees with them is wrong. Our organizations are rooted in free association. Where is the debate on those topics which threaten our very existence? I might be completely wrong – and that might be the focus of any professional who reads this blog – but the issue here is the lack of debate and alternative approaches.

So I will now call hazing what it truly is, systemic bullying. From my time as a student I have worked to prevent bullying and I have made progress and missteps in the process. My tactics might not be as newsworthy as new laws in Texas and Pennsylvania, but they work. Try them out.

Are the laws necessary? No, but pass them anyway. All I ask is that you follow your own leadership advice. Try a hand at persuasion and understand that there are more than two sides to this or any topic. We cannot be beacons of leadership if we employ the same tactics as the most distasteful, untrustworthy leaders on Earth.