Listening to the smooth voice of Jian Ghomeshi on his show Q on NPR, one guest tonight was an advocate for "initiation rituals". (wow, links are so much more pleasant on a PC that's not trying to autocorrect "href" into an English word. /tangent) I think the discussion of whether or not all initiations are hazing or in any way necessary is a good one. I didn't think any of this guy's arguments held water. The best thing I got from him was how hazing/initiation is distinct from bullying. It's about duration. Hazing is pretty much just bullying, to my mind, but it has an end point. At some point, you join the upper echelon and you no longer get hazed/bullied, and to some degree you are complicit in it. Bullying more generally has no signup sheet and no end date. It occurs to me that this makes hazing a subset of bullying behavior, not distinct from it. Even more, they all fall into the realm of torture, either wholly or largely overlapping it. And common or no, I can't support ritualized torture. Also, hazing is about reinforcing the existing status apparatus, and being someone who has always been a little outside the normal power structure, I have no love of the status quo nor the perpetuation thereof just for the sake of it.
In general I'd define hazing as something done to diminish, hurt, antagonize, or otherwise embarrass a person or group of people, with their complicity*, on the way to joining a presumably desirable, high status group. In theory, tough initiation rituals weed out the uncommitted or undesirable, acting as a "jerk filter", kind of like a tricky technical climb keeps novices off of prime climbing cliffs or tight squeezes keep drunk teenagers out of the cave beyond the pinch point. In reality, most initiation rituals are just ways to lower people who you should want to most elevate. You can probably tell by my tone, I'm not a fan.
The specific instance here was a group of mixed sex engineering students doing the "Slush Crawl" at a Canadian University for, of all things, an engineering society. A video made it online and slush hit the fan. Rightfully so to my mind. Why? Because it's hazing. Crawling through slush in underwear in freezing weather while being pelted by snowballs, squirted by seniors weilding water guns, and being smushed further into the cold? That can physically damage you forever, or kill you without affecting your engineering abilities one iota. Canadians may be tough in the cold, but hypothermia is no joke. You can lose fingers or toes. And you know it's no fun because the organizers don't take part in the crawling.
Compare and contrast to a "water party" I gleefully attended in college:
One, it was warm out.
Two, it was a fun exploration of ways to get wet on campus, not a barrier to entry for an academic or professional group. I could go home at any time and suffer no repercussions.
Three, while I was crawling around in not much (to save myself laundry... right...) dress was up to the individual choice, not dictated by the man.
Four, the organizers gleefully participated in addition to refereeing winners of moat races.
Five, I learned new things about the campus, like which water features were the most accessible. (The most memorable being that the moat around the chapel ramps up under the "drawbridge" area so don't splash down too enthusiastically there, you'll scrape your nose.)
If the Slush Crawl was just a campus tradition? Fine - if they get a first aid station and serve hot chocolate afterward, and have heaters or bonfires or homemade saunas set up. And if participation is in no way compulsory. I starred (*) "complicit" earlier because while you're playing along like you approve, your approval doesn't matter. If you're unable to safely say no, you consent is not consent. Kind of like going through the TSA search and seizure routine - not flying really isn't an option if I want to see family and participate in modern life without losing my job for taking too many vacation days. My consent is meaningless because there are not other *viable* options to flying. The problem is similar for hazing. If you object to hazing, consequences can be severe - not being in the engineering, or any, society might not sound like big shakes, but it determines your social and professional life for years, and possibly your lifetime.
For this specific instance, the guest made the following lousy and lazy arguments:
- this has been happening for years
- many people have it worse that that
- it doesn't "look" that bad
- no one complained about the event
- if she didn't report the complaint, she didn't mind the slap on the ass
- initiations are "highly calibrated"
- initiations are put you through experiences that will prepare you and your group of initiates to overcome "relevant" obstacles.
My rebuttals, one by one
- Conduct must be judged on its merits, not its prevalence (R. Cohen.)
- How something "looks" has no relevance to how something feels or how serious it is. It doesn't look that bad to stuff someone in a small box either, but when you do it to someone (excepting magicians and performance artists who do it to themselves) it's torture. 15 minutes locked in a box can cause a psycotic break. Crawling over ice in the buff can cause permanent damage to fingers and toes in minutes.
- Complaining about the event is equivalent to refusing to participate, if not worse. Unless someone actually does become noticably disabled or dead, complaints are rare. You don't want to be a tattletale, do you? Now you've done the hazing for nothing, and become subject to bullying and harrassment. My uncle had some similar hazing event in college (being wet and cold in underwear running around) and the resulting pneumonia nearly killed him. My grandfather, a husky 6'3" and smart as a whip and kind to all, went on a real tear to the college board. He, my uncle and his friend were the only ones to really complain. They were no longer pledges. They didn't get to meet alums in high finance in Chicago. But they did get their dignity. And my grandfather was always proud about speaking up against hazing. He found it an appalling thing to ask of someone, and I'm right on board.
- Harassment isn't defined as "something that makes a person file an official complaint". You don't get to smack women on the ass without explicit consent; it's a straight up violation. Someone with equal or greater standing should see you being an asshole and take you to task, it's not up to the lowest status person, aka an initiate freshman, to call you on your crap. Even I might have let this one pass in the noise of "they were shoving and slapping at everyone" but (a) they weren't, and (b) it was given that no-defense reaction explicity, and (c) just days ago mass media was bemoaning the status points lost for two boys convicted of rape for drugging a teenage girl, dragging her to multiple parties like a hunted deer carcass, raping her all the while as people stood around and filmed it. And people felt sorry for the goddamned boys! So I'm telling you now, if a guy smacks a woman on the ass, you stand up and tell him to back off until/unless she freely volunteers that it's just peachy with her.
So now that the lazy arguments are out of the way, we get to my buried lede. It turns out that enduring hardship together does make for strong bonds between people. But you know what? Hazing overwhelmingly makes people angry, embarrassed, bitter, and vengeful. Then if they're allowed to be vengeful, they don't take it out on the perpetrators, generally, they take it out on next year's initiates and give just a little worse than they got. And things snowball from there. Or become snowballs thrown at people crawling through slush to be... better engineers? That ritual makes no damn sense.
The real point where I lost my sympathy for the guest and culminated in this post was the "highly calibrated" and "prepares you for real tasks" comments.
- Hazing is almost never "highly calibrated". Giving worse than you got is a recipe for evil.
- Hazing almost never directly or peripherally prepares you for your future life challenges.
Why would a group be made more cohesive when the relationships start out as bullying and embarrassment and negativity? What about needlessly risking hypothermia and toe loss makes one a better engineer? How is that better than having the initiates/pledges do a big project on a tight timeline? MIT Hacks come to mind. While those are mostly volunteer, some of them happened every Rush, and someone had to do them - why not initiates? That's a positive focused team directive that builds confidence and accomplishes something. Like becoming an Eagle Scout by doing a project for your community, have the freshman plan an outing or an event or a fundraiser - all these things put people to work doing observable life skills.
Take party planning - the leaders can see who's a better organizer, who's a better "task doer", who sloughs off, who has good ideas. And they can either sort their pledge choices based on these skills, or decide to hold a skills class to get their pledges better organized. Maybe give them an inconvenient deadline - where pledges have to get their act together or fail to pledge or fail a class, but have available to them the tools needed for them to succeed at the pledge challenge AND their coursework.
Myself, I only had marginal exposure to hazing. I did a week of AFROTC indoctrination, and there were a couple of physical fitness evenings that were just there to wear us out. I learned later that they'd planned all the insults weeks in advance, so no matter what happened, someone's uniform wouldn't be pressed enough, someone would be too slow, and that person or group would be yelled at. Most of the week was just honest learning and PT. But the very small parts that weren't? Made me dislike and disrespect the leaders. Most of them remain tainted in my mind to this day - and they weren't all that bad.
Why would we want to live in a world where people dedicate their time to making life harder for other folks? There exist tough circumstances already. While going through a trial together may make you some friends for life, hazing is more likely to bring a lingering enmity to your life that doesn't help you or anyone you know. Why not fill that initiation time with progressive challenges that culminate in creating something good or entertaining? It should be something a senior would like to do again. It should be difficult and can be silly and even embarrassing, if the goal isn't solely to cause embarrassment, like a musical done in drag, or making identical or themed costumes that get worn to class. More pledge ideas off the top of my head: make a work of art, make a music video of the latest meme, redecorate the living room, create a new dining room chandelier, run a fundraiser, hold a bake-off bake sale, hold a loft building competition, get another measurement of the divot created when a piano falls from a dorm roof. Imagine the results of onupsmanship in building a better movie room lounge or carving topiary trees instead of wasting your energy running around cold and wet.
So if you find yourself in a group preparing to haze someone, let go of any vendetta. Think instead of how you can make it be a potentially positive experience that benefits your group and your pledges. Instead of hosing people down, set them to achieve something difficult but delightful for the whole team.