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).

High school hazing

High school hazing remains common, concludes a University of Maine study.

Nearly half of university students surveyed said they’d been hazed as high school students.  Students who belonged to sports teams, ROTC, bands and performing arts groups were more likely to report hazing.

Much of the hazing was minor:

Hazing-related activities included being required to associate only with the peer group (28 percent), singing or chanting in public (21 percent), verbal abuse (19 percent), sleep deprivation (12 percent), and getting a tattoo or piercing (12 percent), they said.

However, “12 percent of the survey’s respondents participated in a drinking game, and 8 percent drank until getting sick or losing consciousness, they said.”

Hazing is “getting more brutal,” said Elliot Hopkins of the National Federation of State High School Associations. “They’re getting more sexual. And they’re being pushed down into middle schools.”