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chicagotribune.com >> Editorials
Kids gone wild? In praise of hazing
By Gary Alan Fine, a sociology professor at Northwestern University and the author of “With the Boys: Little League Baseball and Preadolescent Culture.”
Published June 20, 2006
Hazing is good for America. Those of us who have been through fraternity (and some sorority) initiations, at one time a hallowed part of campus life, know that they develop shared feelings of honor and pride. But such rituals have been toned down in today’s no-risk, litigious, surveillance society. Where once we accepted the rough-and-tumble of youth culture, now everything is examined through the thorny eyes of lawyers.
Recently, Northwestern University suspended some members of the women’s soccer team from some 2006-07 regular-season games for hazing. Some players also received probation and others unspecified “additional disciplinary action.” The men’s swim team and the Northwestern Wildcat mascot squad also were punished in separate incidents.
The truth is that in almost all instances hazing is not harmful. Girls will be girls (and boys, boys) and any punishment will be ineffective. And hazing rituals have real benefits.
Initiations require mutual support and bonding among members. The initiates give up some of their dignity, smudge their reputations, because they know that others in the group will have done the same. They gain a confidence that their mates will support them through college and after. Those more senior know that the initiates wish to join with such intensity that they are willing to let themselves be humiliated. You agree to become the butt of a collective joke, shrouded in secrecy. No one will ever know, so one’s public self is preserved.
Being told that you’re going to eat worms, strip to your skivvies, or chug a few beers while being paddled is not everyone’s idea of fun. But it is precisely the willingness to put up with these uncomfortable (and sometimes painful) antics that indicates you care deeply about membership. The group matters. Initiates give up part of their personal reputation to acquire the benefits of the reputation of the team. And this strengthens the group and the person.
Indeed, what is striking about the women’s soccer initiation at Northwestern is that all reports suggest the women participated voluntarily and considered it fun.
Granted, initiations can go too far. Some rules are essential (no sexual contact, reasonable boundaries on physical punishment, and, most significantly, demands that the organizers refrain from alcohol). Excessive practices often occur when authorities prohibit initiations. When we do not teach teenagers how to drink responsibly, they learn to drink rapidly and to excess. When initiations are pushed underground, they are re-created without tradition and sometimes without boundaries. When universities do not learn that bonding rituals are valid and valuable, they respond with fear and create foolish rules that encourage violations.
Initiations were once tied mostly to the doings of college men. Perhaps the sexist idea that this rough sport was acceptable for boys led to a greater acceptance of these rituals. However, female athletes and sorority members are now quite as wild as their male counterparts. And good for them. Bonding used to be a male activity, but now female bonding serves the same valid purposes as they did for their brothers.
However, one rule should be inviolable. No Internet pictures. Today the tut-tut images of young adults romping in their panties, downing brews, being bound with tape or giving lap dances on Web sites such as badjocks.com combine smarmy voyeurism with unctuous morality, the worst of both worlds. For hazing to have its positive effects, it must separate the group from those outside to create a powerful connection among members.
College administrators may want to punish students for their violations, but these are rules that no one needs or wants.
Left alone, these students will create connections that will serve them for life. Just ask President Bush and Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and their Skull and Bones brothers.