A few nights ago, as I was waiting out the worst of Hurricane Sandy’s temper in the relative safety of my dorm room, I thought about my family—specifically my younger brother, who’s currently living and working in the Big Apple.
As I ruminated on the chances of his survival in his Midtown apartment (my fears weren’t allayed at all by Twitter’s grim prognostications), I had two important realizations: First, that he had—thankfully—made a pilgrimage to Dartmouth (where he’s a student) for Homecoming weekend; second, that he had probably weathered storms much worse than Sandy when he was hazed as a fraternity pledge.
Dartmouth is notorious among the Ivies for its pervasive Greek-letter culture. According to U.S. News & World Report, approximately 60% of the undergraduate population is affiliated with one of 26 fraternities or sororities. (Not-so-surprisingly, the fratty majority of the student body has a specific term for the unaffiliated that reflects the contempt they feel: GDI.)
As one might expect from a school with such a pervasive fraternity system, hazing is part of life at Dartmouth to an insane degree—it’s institutional, it’s expected, and absolutely everybody does it. It’s also been in the news: Andrew Lohse is currently America’s most famous frat brother for the dramatic reveal of his fraternity’s hazing and his own role in perpetuating it.
Hazing, as defined by the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention, is
“any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.”
I’ve asked my brother on occasion what he thinks of frat life in general—I, for my own part, chose to remain unaffiliated and curious—and the answers I get from him are uniformly positive. It seems to me that the fraternity life suits him (it has certainly increased his already-impressive ability to chug), and that he’s done well for himself in the organization.
That said: he’s never spoken to me about his experience of being hazed, even when I’ve pressed him for details.
And therein, I think, lies the real ethical issue. There’s not much doubt that fraternity life can enrich its members, but the process involved in gaining admission is particularly despicable. (Not to mention the contempt that its exclusivity engenders.) Should the fraternity system be maintained if it necessarily involves—and even congratulates—harming undergraduates?
To put it simply: it’s complicated.
Yesuto Shaw, a member of the class of 2015, published an incredibly brave opinion piece in The Dartmouth describing his own experience with hazing and decrying the process as a whole. It’s moving to read, and Shaw highlights an important point: In reference to his exposure to Dartmouth’s dirty little secret, he writes:
“Yet still, to be honest, I don’t believe that what they did was done with bad intentions. I honestly believe that they were trying somehow to make us stronger and more able to handle struggles in life. But how they did it was wrong.”
To the brothers, everything they did to their pledges was for some greater good—they were acting in the service of tradition. It’s that cognitive dissonance that’s dangerous: the brothers felt themselves absolved from their actions because they didn’t think themselves bad as people. Their reasoning stems—however unconsciously—from Leon Festinger’s seminal psychological paper, “The Psychological Effects of Insufficient Awards.”
His research showed that “those who were experimentally induced to engage in a lot of preparatory effort persuaded themselves that the thing they were preparing for would actually occur.” This finds a quite convenient analogue in ritual hazing. The more meaningless (and harmful) the task, the more highly valued the reward—full brotherhood. In other words, Festinger’s findings indicate that it’s the process of initiation that’s important, rather than the tasks themselves.
Instead of dismantling the fraternity system entirely—which I believe would do much more harm than good, as formally banning fraternities from existing on campus isn’t the same as fixing the problem—I think that the administration should implement the recommendations suggested in the National Study of Student Hazing, the first comprehensive study of undergraduate hazing in America.
I would also urge current members to change their own initiation rituals to be less degrading. It’s ethically wrong to perpetuate a culture than systematically debases its most vulnerable members, and no one should tolerate being abused.
I’m not naïve enough to think that things will change quickly. I do, however, hope that freshmen and seniors alike will do the right thing, and demand meaningful change.