Hazing: A Worldwide Scourge
by Hank Nuwer
India’s national disgrace with ragging is more common in many industrial countries than even journalists realize. Aman Satya Kachroo, 19, died this month in a hazing incident. Four seniors at Dr Rajendra Prashad Medical College in Kangra were arrested and face murder counts. The government of India is considering the banning of all hazers caught ragging from ever attending a state university ever again.
Japan has vicious sumo wrestler initiations, one newcomer beaten to death by three older wrestlers not long ago. Beatings similar to ragging recently have resulted in killings in the Philippines, Indonesia and the United States.
In the latter three countries ragging is called hazing, the term apparently taken from the term in the old American West for the practice of controlling stock animals. The word “hazing” was later appropriated in the Wild West for the ridicule and rough jokes forced on newcomers called “greenhorns.”
Unfortunately, while awareness of hazing in the U.S. media has never been higher, deaths from fraternity and, to a much lesser degree, sorority hazing have continued unabated for thirty years.
The first male fraternity man to die was the son of a former Civil War general at Cornell University in 1873. America has had at least one hazing death—and sometimes many deaths—every year from 1970 to 2009, according to my research.
These pledges or so-called “associate members” die mainly from alcohol poisoning and beatings, but sometimes they die in bizarre ways, including burning to death, drowning, choking on forced substances such as liver chunks and getting hit by drunk drivers while abandoned and lost far out in the country.
Worse, with a few exceptions, educational programs to address hazing in American secondary schools before college are mainly non-existent or hastily planned only after an incident occurs.
While high school students do not often die from beatings, they do endure pummeling, paddling, and worse, sexual abuse ending in rectal tearing from objects such as pens and brooms inserted by their gleeful, sadistic peers. Two football players from a small New Mexico town pleaded guilty in recent days to sodomizing a so-called “rookie” teammate.
These high-school hazers take inspiration from American professional athletes who delight in tormenting, humiliating and one time (the New Orleans Saints football team) savagely beating rookies—many of these incidents being treated as humorous and part of the game by U.S. sportswriters.
Moreover, the hazing frenzy in North America is not limited to the United States. Canada’s junior hockey program long has seen newcomers subject to sexual abuse, and one rookie quit McGill University’s well-known football program amid claims he was sexually hazed. A vicious paddling incident at a prestigious school northwest of Edmonton has drawn frenzied press coverage this year.
And beatings and sexual abuse during initiations in prestigious South African secondary academies have only recently sparked parents and concerned citizens to begin campaigns similar to India’s anti-ragging efforts to force school administrators to ban all such so-called “welcoming” activities.
India’s attempts to impose a lifetime ban on those caught ragging is admirable (though likely to have educators mired in appeals and litigation), but if bans in the United States are any indication, they are doomed to failure. Hazing used to be practiced out in the open in the United States, but when perpetrators faced expulsion from school and fraternity, plus misdemeanor or felony hazing charges, they took the practice underground.
Beatings continued in secrecy, particularly in African-American and Latino groups that admire warrior ability to endure pain and sacrifice. Coerced alcohol initiations among international, national and local fraternities and sororities not only escalated but they evolved into creative games. This month a young sorority woman pleaded guilty to giving a fraternity pledge at Utah State University a fatal administering of booze during a games session. Supposedly it was a “reward” for the pledge to be hazed by women instead of fraternity brothers for one night.
Is there anything that can be done about practices such as ragging and hazing other than throwing one’s hands up in disgust and outrage?
I think there is. Having written and studied about hazing since 1975, after a hazing death occurred at the Nevada university where I attended graduate school, I believe these are positive developments in the USA:
–National and international fraternities and sororities themselves have come down hard on hazers, expelling individual and individual chapters caught violating rules. (Sadly, many chapters and even a few international organizations give hypocritical lip service to anti-hazing rules, flouting them in reality).
–National organizations such as HazingPrevention.org and Stophazing.org provide educational programs, as do risk management corporations such as the Human Equation which provides online anti-hazing educational courses. Buffalo State College’s library in New York has a “Hazing Collection” to put scholarly books and articles and videos all in one place for scholars to study.
–Criminal laws gradually have been tightened state by state, mainly because the parents of dead victims have lobbied hard for felony hazing charges in states like Florida and California. Civil litigation (including awards of $14 million U.S. dollars) also serves as a deterrent—at least to the elders who are university administrators or fraternity officials.
But in the end, it is going to take a paradigm shift where young people themselves begin to universally condemn hazing before true reform can be expected to become the reality.
And even if a decrease in ragging/hazing does occur due to toughened national laws in India and the USA and elsewhere, I have no doubt hazing will crop up again and again among students sometime in the future.
As I have written in my books “Wrongs of Passage” and the “Hazing Reader” (Indiana University Press), hazing and ragging are indeed a weed in the Garden of Academe. Stamp it out in one quadrangle and it flares up again in the next.
More than a weed, in my opinion hazing and ragging are a true scourge, allowing us to see in our young people the kind of viciousness that erupted in the American holding pens for prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib.
Only when our young people gain a respect for human rights will these vicious human rites truly disappear.
I pray they do disappear, but my research demonstrates that hazing/ragging will not disappear altogether in my lifetime, nor in the lifetime of anyone reading this commentary.
And that is a sad commentary on human affairs indeed.
BIO: Hank Nuwer is an American university professor and the author of four books on hazing. His website is at Hanknuwer.com where he reports on international hazing and ragging incidents daily.