The sudden flurry of calls to end hazing is nothing new. Every few years or so, the public is confronted with another news story on the premature death of a young man — the victims are usually male — and reaffirms the need to stop hazing. It’s almost cyclical.
And like clockwork, universities will remove chapter recognitions while national chapters emphasize the line in their charter that prohibits the cruel practice. Lawyers are hired to assign blame and extract vindication while parents, fellow classmates and friends are left to weep.
But memories and lessons fade quickly and before long, another fraternity brother will die at another university. The death of George Desdunes ’13 was not unique.
Just two years ago, 18-year-old Carson Starkey, who was pledging Sigma Alpha Epsilon at California Polytechnic Institute, died of alcohol poisoning with blood alcohol levels of around .39 to .447. His four captors were charged with felonies and misdemeanors. And in 2005, 21-year-old Matthew Carrington of Chico State University died due to water intoxication after being forced to perform calisthenics and drink water. Four brothers of the Chi Tau fraternity were also charged with felonies.
The parallels are eerie.
So if history proves correct — as it always does — the noble calls from student leaders and administrators, even Cornell’s own president, for an end to hazing are in vain. If sleep deprivation, excruciating calisthenics, name-calling, alcohol abuse and even possibility of death can’t deter pledges from submitting themselves to the brutal practice or fraternity brothers from administering it, what makes us so certain that a few op-eds and general guidelines can?
If something as terrible as hazing can’t even stop hazing, then how effective are our pleas?
The fact is, hazing is not as simple as we believe it to be and ridding it will require more than dialogue and short-lived promises. It is not endemic to collegiate social organizations. It has occurred throughout history and has been used everywhere, even across cultures. In the military, new cadets are physically abused by privates who outrank them in the social hierarchy. In the Amazon rainforest, young males voluntarily endure stabbing, sometimes lethal bites from bullet ants in order to become men. In prisons, newly admitted inmates undergo verbal and physical abuse before being accepted and trusted by their fellow inmates. There were even examples of hazing at Harvard in the 1600s by upperclassmen.
A ritual so faithfully practiced — more than half of college students involved in teams and organizations experience it, according to the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention — that has become a fixture of human culture, despite its malicious side and fervent national protests, must serve some sort of purpose greater than new member initiation.
It does. And its purpose is critical to the survival of social groups like fraternities because it breeds unity and exclusivity. Only the extraordinary few can join the military and those who do must prove they are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice. And in prison, where livelihoods depend on mutual trust, inmates must create some sort of system in order to guarantee solidarity.
So it’s not surprising to see social groups that thrive on unity and exclusivity rely so heavily on hazing. If these two pillars collapse, so too will the fraternities. Hazing is at the very core of what has made the Greek system so successful for so long. It’s the catalyst behind the unbreakable bonds between brothers. After all, only the brothers who can endure the semester-long process can gain access to a fraternity’s secrets, privileges and rewards. And for pledges, the rewards are worth the costs. If they survive the ritual, they can attend the closed mixers and parties. Only those who have endured the abuse can wear the Greek letters of their fraternities in public. Even their houses, constructed in the images of castles and palaces and shut off by their enormous wooden doors to stop outsiders from entering, are metaphors for their close brotherhood and unity. After all, part of the reward is reminding people you are a member since there is no point of being exclusive unless everyone knows it.
But the price of being hazed is seen in the product: an indivisible brotherhood with members who have been painstakingly and brutally vetted for their loyalty. By successfully emerging from weeks of torture, newly initiated members have declared that they value membership and acceptance to the fraternity over their own dignities — and perhaps, by consciously risking their own safety, they value them even over their own lives.
And that’s what has made the Greek system so successful. Hazing will and continue to happen because the Greek system needs hazing as much as hazing needs the Greek system. So if universities, including Cornell, are sincere in their pleas to end the practice, they’ll have to resort to more than passive calls. That strategy has been tested again and again and it has never worked. If Cornell is willing to pass any and all measures to protect the lives of its students, and the bridge fences and safety nets are proof that it is willing to do so, it will need to take more drastic measures.
Steven Zhang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.