14 April 2010

The Moral Status of Hazing

Stephen Kershnar
Hazing: Naked in Ice Water
Dunkirk-Fredonia Observer
April 12, 2010

Hazing occurs when one person humiliates or imposes risky conditions on a second in return for some group-related benefit. The benefit might involve inclusion or promotion in the group. There is a widespread attempt to stop hazing, although the arguments for doing so are not too convincing.

At www.hazing.cornell.edu, Cornell University provides some examples of hazing. Cornell doesn’t specify which hazing acts were done by fraternities, sororities, sports teams, or military teams (ROTC groups). In one case, new members were made to do calisthenics to the point of collapse. In a second case, other new members (my guess, sorority sisters) were pressured to make out with members of the same sex. In a third case, new members were put under bright lights and interrogated. When they answered incorrectly, ketchup and mustard were thrown on them. In a fourth case, new members were made to lie down naked in a makeshift pool filled with six inches of ice water, beer, kitchen garbage, and urine.

Hazing is illegal in all but six states. In New York, depending on how it is done, hazing is a misdemeanor (Class A allows for up to a year incarceration) or violation (up to 15 days incarceration). It is also prohibited by many colleges and universities, including Cornell. Even the military prohibits hazing and classifies it as a criminal offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

Despite this criminalization and other prohibitions, hazing is surprisingly common. One 2008 study by University of Maine professors Elizabeth Allan and Mary Madden found that 55% of college students (and 61% of males) involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experienced hazing. In fact, 47% experienced it before coming to college. This number goes up to 70% for those involved in a varsity team or who joined a fraternity or sorority. The most frequent types of hazing involve participating in drinking (drinking games or binge drinking), singing or chanting, and associating with specific people. The first two were the most common for varsity teams, fraternities, and sororities.

There are two main arguments for hazing. First, some defenders of hazing argue that it doesn’t wrong new members because they gave informed consent. The notion that you can’t be wronged by treatment to which you consented is widely accepted and used to explain why sex, wrestling, and surgery are not objectionable.

The second argument is that hazing is permissible because it is the best way to bring about desirable results. Proponents argue that hazing ensures that members are committed to their organization and each other, encourages bonding, and fosters a sense of exclusivity. Together these changes strengthen friendships and a sense of identification and pride in the group. Consider, for example, the commitment to each other, sense of brotherhood, and pride in their group found in Navy Seals, Green Berets, and Marines. This is likely due in no small part to the hellish training they go through.

Allan and Madden’s study provide some support for this beneficial-results view. They found that more student perceive positive than negative outcomes of hazing. In addition, a significant number (31%) said it made them feel more like a part of the group.

One objection to hazing, and probably the one that underlies criminalization and campus prohibitions, is that it causes unnecessary harm or involves coercion. The notion that it causes unnecessary harm depends on the claim that the benefits of hazing (commitment, bonding, and exclusivity) could be had in other ways. This is an empirical claim. I am not aware of any studies that support it. Perhaps there are some.

The notion that hazing usually involves coercion is a mistake. New members can avoid it simply by leaving the group. Some hazing is undoubtedly too dangerous, but from this it does not follow that all hazing is wrong.

A second objection is that hazing is degrading. Philosopher Michael Cholboi argues that a practice is degrading when its main goal is to subordinate another by getting him to accept his subordinate status. On this account, getting people to do lie in urinate-infused ice water or make out with members of the same sex (when not gay or bisexual) degrades them in this way. This might be seen as analogous to the degradation that accompanies being the submissive partner in bondage-and-domination sexuality.

The problem with Cholboi’s objection is that it is not clear that hazing does this. If enduring rough treatment is the means by which a group brings about commitment, bonding, and exclusivity, then it is not clear that hazing is, or should be seen as, subordinating. The data suggesting that students who have gone through hazing are more likely to view it positively than negatively and the data suggesting that nearly a third view it as more strongly bonding them to the group, suggests that many of those who are hazed don’t see it as degrading.

A third objection is that hazing exploits people’s desire to join fraternities, varsity teams, military units, and so on. Exploitation occurs when a person or group uses the desperation of a weaker person to make an unfair deal with the latter. The problem is that however much people want to join a fraternity, team, or military unit, they are not desperate in the relevant way (having only one reasonable option). For example, they are not similar to a starving woman who must trade sex for food. Even if new members are desperate, it is not clear that hazing is an unfair price to pay for the friendships, pride, and fun that accompanies membership in fraternities, elite military units, or varsity teams.

Despite the long history of hazing, prosecutors, military leaders, and campus administrators are trying to get rid of it. The arguments for doing so are unconvincing.

11 comments:

The Objectivist said...

The military bans hazing, but then engages in a series of in-your-face ways of training and conditioning recruits, cadets, etc. I take it this is not hazing only if one accepts the following.

1. This method of training involves necessary abuse.

2. By definition, hazing does not involve necessary abuse.

I wonder if there is any evidence for 1, other than anecdotes. As for 2, this entails that necessarily, all hazing is unnecessary. This does not track my intuitive sense of the word "hazing."

Nor does it track at least one common definition of it.

"haze 2 (hāz)
tr.v. hazed, haz·ing, haz·es

To persecute or harass with meaningless, difficult, or humiliating tasks.

To initiate, as into a college fraternity, by exacting humiliating performances from or playing rough practical jokes upon."

The Objectivist said...

The current nanny campaign is probably tied in to the greater infantilization of college students. At some colleges, the following is done.

1. RAs check in with the residents in a suite every night.

2. There are three-strike rules against drinking.

3. There are sign-in sheets in dorms, an oversupply of security cameras and police, and other methods more appropriate for schools catering to children.

4. The campuses have large counseling centers, despite this being a private medical matter.

5. School newspapers have moved away from investigation and robust discussion of social and political issues.

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Res Ipsa said...

I am or have been acquainted with members of the 3 military units you used as examples in this post. My experience has been that SEALS for example, are required to preform at a level of physical endurance that exceeds that of Olympic athletes. The harsh physical conditioning produces a level of physical fitness required to do the job. The harsh mental conditioning produces or at least helps to identify persons who are able to make decisions under stresses associated with the riggers of combat.

The military objects to "hazing" only in so far as it is done outside of the chain of command for non-approved reasons. I suppose that military training must by definition be excluded from the "hazing" debate

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********

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Shermer - Harris - Myers - Dawkins - Randi VS. NOSTRADAMUS - EINSTEIN - MARKUZE


you're ANNIHILATED!


Atheists,

Repent and turn to God.

Julia said...

Steve, I don't understand this claim: "The data suggesting that students who have gone through hazing are more likely to view it positively than negatively and the data suggesting that nearly a third view it as more strongly bonding them to the group, suggests that many of those who are hazed don’t see it as degrading." First of all, the claim was that hazing *is* degrading, not that people who have been hazed see it as degrading, and as we know when it comes to teaching evaluations, the fact of the matter and some parties' perception of the fact of the matter are two different things. Second, it's entirely conceivable that a person would view an act of personal degradation as positive, for example if he believes either that he *should* be in a subordinate position or that accepting such a position brings about positive rewards. So I'm not sure how the passage I quoted can be construed as a refutation of the claim that hazing is degrading.

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The Objectivist said...

Julia:

You make a good point. I guess I was assuming that people are pretty good judges of when they are degraded. Perhaps that is incorrect.

It does seem possible that people might view a practice as degrading or subordinating and yet still view is as both positive and as more strongly bonding him to the group. Yet it seems this should be the last position we adopt because anecdotes suggest people do not want to be subordinated nor does being subordinated bind them to groups. So I guess my point is an evidentiary one.

If the sort of evidence I cite is not evidence for or against degradation, then it is hard to see what empirical evidence would support the claim that hazing is degrading. Perhaps it is a moral claim that can be intuitively seen, but this depends on whether the hazing is a means to a group's goal, and it seems that it is (namely, bonding and a commitment test).
Thanks,
Steve

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