A hazy shade of pledging

Michael Winerip had a fairly long article in the NY Times yesterday about collegiate fraternity hazing.  The article is structured as if it were written by committee, but it’s worth reading anyway.  It centers on the death of a Cornell student, George Desdunes, and uses a detailed discussion of that tragedy as an indirect way of raising larger questions about fraternity hazing and collegiate alcohol policy generally.

There was one vexing sentence (vexing for me, anyway) in his article, though, which I think needs to be flagged, if for no other reason that it makes for interesting discussion:

ALCOHOL is often the not-so-secret ingredient that turns pledging into hazing.

Does alcohol really turn pledging into hazing?  Or does it turn hazing into something dangerous?  Does Winerip mean to say that when pledging is dangerous, as it might be when alcohol is involved, it then becomes hazing?  That would be a fairly narrow view of hazing, something more akin to the legal definitions that are commonly used which rely on concepts such as “substantial risk of physical injury”.  Many anti-hazing advocates and several universities, however, use much broader definitions that include as hazing things like risks of “emotional harm”, “humiliation”, or “degradation”.  That’s a very, very different set of behaviors.

Winerip never actually tells us exactly what he means by hazing, but his discussion seems to indicate that he’s primarily concerned with the narrower, more dangerous phenomenon.  That’s probably a good thing, though I think that there are probably some further lines that can and should be drawn across that particular territory — rugby, for instance, creates a “substantial risk of physical injury” by most actuarial definitions, but no one seems to think that the Chi Psi pledges shouldn’t have to play the brothers in a few games as part of their initiation.

In any case, I think we always should be careful to be very specific about what we’re talking about when we discuss things like hazing, harassment, bullying, or other behaviors that we want to inhibit, prohibit, or punish in our schools and colleges (or anywhere else, for that matter).


  1. Most fraternity hazing is just silly and/or stupid stuff, but when it include binge drinking that is when it can become very dangerous. The linked article notes that at least 80% of hazing deaths involved alcohol. When guys attempt things like the “Double Century Club” (200 shots of beer in 200 minutes), that’s just asking for trouble. It’s not a Greek-specific problem by a long shot, but because Greek organizations attract kids who like to party, they wind up with a larger percentage of these kinds of incidents. Just making official Greek events dry won’t do much, either- my sorority was officially dry but we all pre-partied and there was always several girls who sneaked in a bottle of something.

  2. Hazing will always be around. It’s human nature. I’m sure there will still be hazing in the 24th Century, for new crewmembers on the USS Enterprise-E. The only thing we can do is teach our youth that hazing should be innocuous and harmless; usually some kind of harmless practical joke for a good laugh. And the best place for them to learn where those lines should be drawn is in University, as fraternities and sororities are where most youth experience such hazing for the first time in their lives.