Michael B. Greene
As I was reading Susan Lipkins’s pioneering book on hazing, I noticed an online newspaper article describing an instance of what Lipkins would call hazardous hazing by two fraternity brothers in Florida (2 FAMU fraternity brothers, 2007). With Florida having adopted the country’s toughest antihazing law, these two young men were sentenced to prison for two years as a result of punching a pledge and paddling him with a wooden cane. The Florida law was passed following national headlines in 2003 about the sexual assault of three freshman football players from Mepham High School in Long Island at a training camp in Pennsylvania. The sexual assault of these freshman football players raised public consciousness about how traditional hazing practices can escalate into aggravated assault and wreak havoc in the lives of the victims, perpetrators, families, schools, and communities. Appropriately, Susan Lipkins begins her book with a retelling of the Mepham High School story of hazing gone awry.
Lipkins’s aim in Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers, and Coaches Can Stop the Violence, Harassment, and Humiliation is to inform and enlighten the public about the nature, dynamics, and consequences of hazing and to provide concrete prevention and intervention strategies. She intersperses throughout her book a diverse array of true stories about hazing that reinforce the points she makes. Data from the one national survey on hazing (Hoover & Pollard, 2000) are appropriately cited throughout the book. Lipkins defines hazing as
a process based on a tradition that is used by groups to maintain a hierarchyâ€¦ within the groupâ€¦ . The rituals require individuals to engage in activities that are physically and psychologically stressful. These activities can be exhausting, humiliating, degrading, demeaning, and intimidating. They result in significant physical and emotional discomfort. (p. 13)
Hazing, Lipkins acknowledges, â€œoccurs on a continuum from mild to severeâ€ (p. 19). Nevertheless, she focuses primarily on what she calls â€œhazardousâ€ hazing, in which the victim experiences significant and lasting physical and psychological pain. Lipkins adopts the position that all forms of hazing should be abolished (at least I think she adopts this position) because even on the mild end, such practices can easily escalate into hazardous behavior. To buttress this position, Lipkins outlines the dynamic process through which mild hazing morphs into hazardous hazing, and she itemizes the conditions that facilitate such a metamorphosis.
A Primer on Hazing
Hazing practices in modern societies and rites of passage in both modern and ancient societies have a long and sometimes glorified tradition. Astonishingly, a search of PsycINFO in late February 2007 with â€œhazingâ€ in the title or as a keyword yielded only 12 journal articles in the past 10 years. Psychologists seem to have ignored this powerful and omnipresent phenomenon. Lipkins’s book, along with Hank Nuwer’s two books on this topic (Nuwer, 1999, 2004), serves as a primer for the rest of us; ideally, these books will stimulate research on this important topic. Lipkins clearly differentiates hazing from two closely related phenomena: bullying and rites-of-passage ceremonies and traditions. She also elucidates the specific components and dynamics of hazing as it is practiced in the United States in the 21st century.
The book is packed with insights, which are in turn developed into suggestions for prevention and intervention strategies. For example, her discussion of the role of bystanders in fueling or inhibiting the severity of hazing (as they do in bullying) is both informative and practical in terms of advice for parents, coaches, administrators, community leaders, and the young people themselves. Lipkins recognizes that victims become bystanders, and bystanders are eventually â€œelevatedâ€ to perpetrators. This microevolutionary process is rooted in a complex set of motivations that are powerful and, at the same time, present opportunities to intervene.
Lipkins debunks such common myths that organizational cohesion or healthy bonding is directly related to the severity of the hazing practices and that the perpetrators of violence in the course of hazing are violence-prone. No single profile of either victims or perpetrators seems to have emerged from her studies. Still, her work is not based on experimental or longitudinal data, though she does present cross-sectional survey data that support her assertions. Lipkins states that her work is based on theories of child development and derives from â€œeducational best practicesâ€ and research. Certainly her work is consistent with what social psychologists have long recognized: that the power of the group and the pressure to conform can, at least temporarily, have a powerful and negative transformative power on the individual and his or her moral standards, particularly during adolescence, when the struggle with individual and group identify is so powerful.
Lipkins tells story after story in which the parents of the perpetrators and victims of hazardous hazing are shocked that their child did not tell them beforehand what was happening. She explains in lay language why this is so and what parents can doâ€”starting in early childhood before hazing occursâ€”to establish the trust and safety required for their children to tell them when they suspect they will be hurt or have urges to hurt others. She is also realistic in understanding that just as whistleblowers in the adult world can be severely sanctioned by their peers and superiors, so too can young people put themselves in serious physical and psychological danger when they report or try to stop hazardous hazing. She outlines several methods by which to report hazardous hazing and break the code of silence and, at the same time, discourages direct confrontation during the planning and implementation of such hazing because of the potential danger in doing so. Similarly, Lipkins does a very nice job providing guidelines for schools and fraternal organizations for establishing rules and in outlining the kinds of discussions that need to occur among all stakeholders (students, coaches, teachers, administrators, parents, and community leaders). Revelations about hazardous hazing are nearly always shocking, and such revelations often leave the stakeholders at a loss about how to understand or respond. Far too often the responses by different parties fracture any community cohesion that formerly existed, with well-intentioned individuals taking different sides. All parties need help in healing, and this book is in a sense a handbook about how to promote healing.
Preventing Hazing is a fine primer on this important and understudied phenomenon. Lipkins acknowledges that the fight to change attitudes toward hazing is an uphill battle. This volume is an excellent first step in helping us all understand the potential danger of hazing activities. For the most part, the book provides a practical outline for preventing the escalation of mild hazing to hazardous hazing and for intervening once it occurs. The book also includes a list of valuable resources to gain further insight into hazing and guide action when it is needed. I would unconditionally recommend this book to parents, coaches, teachers, fraternal organizations, and school administrators.
Nevertheless, this book is far from problem free. The populations highlighted in this book are nearly all White, middle-class young people and communities. I was left wondering how the dynamics outlined by Lipkins get played out in urban gangs and immigrant communities. I was also struck by the parallels between hazardous hazing practices and indoctrination techniques used in cults. Moreover, despite her best and largely successful efforts to remain balanced and nonjudgmental, Lipkins occasionally sounds self-righteous and at times unrealistic in her enthusiasm to eradicate hazing. For example, she encourages teachers and coaches to give students their home and cell phone numbers in the event that the students need to talk to them about hazing. She encourages the formation of groups of students or parents to counter the power of the group that engages in hazing yet fails to warn about the possibility that the countergroup could become as irrational as the hazing group. And she tends to be a little too confident that the strategies she presents will work, despite a lack of experimental evidence. They may work, but we need to assess their effectiveness.
Shortcomings aside, this volume is an excellent and practical book that can be enormously useful for both laypersons and professional mental health practitioners. It can and should serve to stimulate research on this incredibly important topic.
â€¢Â Â Â Hoover, N. C., & Pollard, N. J. (2000). Initiation rights in American high schools: A national survey. Retrieved February 7, 2007, from http://www.alfred.edu/hs_hazing
â€¢Â Â Â Nuwer, H. (1999). Wrongs of passage: Fraternities, sororities, hazing, and binge drinking. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
â€¢Â Â Â Nuwer, H. (Ed.). (2004). The hazing reader. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
â€¢Â Â Â 2 FAMU fraternity brothers get 2 years for hazing. (2007, January 30). Retrieved February 7, 2007, from http://www.news4jax.com/news/10879400/detail.html