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Kennebec Journal commentary on hazing

Two university of Maine researchers have conducted a survey of students at 53 large and small colleges and universities around the country and found out that hazing, despite being banned in 44 states, is widespread.

We’re not surprised.

Hazing, as defined by researchers Mary Madden and Elizabeth Allen, is “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses or endangers, regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.”

When was the last time you watched a television reality show? “American Idol”? “The Apprentice”? “America’s Next Top Model”? All require the contestants or major characters to engage in humiliating activities in front of a vast, television-watching public. Tears and trembling lower lips are de rigeur. Glee from sadistic hosts is part of the package.

Indeed, the New York Times reported last week about a lawsuit involving the family of a man pushed to suicide by a voyeuristic and predatory television show:

“In November 2006, a camera crew from ‘Dateline NBC’ and a police SWAT team descended on the Texas home of Louis William Conradt Jr., a 56-year-old assistant district attorney. The series’ ‘To Catch a Predator’ team had allegedly caught Mr. Conradt making online advances to a decoy who pretended to be a 13-year-old boy. When the police and TV crew stormed Mr. Conradt’s home, he took out a handgun and shot himself to death.”

“That’ll make good TV,” one of the police officers on the scene reportedly told an NBC producer.”

That the American television-watching public evidently loves to watch the voluntary humiliation of others — and television producers have found a way to make money off it — is not to excuse hazing in any way. It has existed for decades (perhaps millennia in the form of tribal initiation rites) and in its worst forms is a loathsome and even dangerous activity.

Maine is one of the states in which hazing is illegal, and last summer, after discovering photos on the Internet of members drinking alcohol, dressing in costumes and making obscene gestures at a “rookie party,” the University of Maine appropriately suspended the entire women’s softball team.

Yet we are left to wonder at the contradictory message that students who are warned against hazing get. On the one hand, their institutions — even state — ban the practice. On the other hand, their culture celebrates its worst manifestations.

What did the University of Maine softball players do when they were suspended for hazing? Go back to their dorms to watch “Survivor”?

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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