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Sterling Watson: What is Hazing and Why Do People Do It?
Sterling Watson, professor of literature and creative writing at Eckerd College and author of “Fighting in the Shade,” examines the culture behind hazing.
By Sterling Watson
What is hazing and why do people do it? I believe that hazing is psycho-sexual torture.
Hazing involves elements of humiliation that are absent from the coming of age rituals common to many cultures across time. When an adolescent Native American male was pierced through the chest and suspended in agony for days until he achieved a communion with the spirits who would be his companions and guardians to the end of his days, the purpose was not humiliation. The young Brave, a well-chosen title, endured his pain to show his courage and his stamina, but more importantly to transcend the world of the physical and to move beyond its pain to spiritual awareness. On that higher plane the young man could find new powers of character. He could find the beginnings of wisdom. The men who pierced the boy’s chest and suspended him in his agony did not consider themselves torturers. They were men who had endured the same agony and who believed in its transformative power and in the ultimate value of that power, the survival of the tribe.
None of what is obviously good, if also terrible, in the piercing and suspension of the Brave exists in hazing, though some who have participated in hazing would argue that it does. Many rituals of hazing degrade and humiliate young initiates while at the same time inflicting physical pain. Often the humiliation is either vaguely or explicitly sexual. Why do boys and girls, young men and young women, who have “made the team” torture and humiliate those who want to join them in the striving for excellence and the sacrifice of sports? Why do some adults encourage or at least tolerate the psycho-sexual torture of these young initiates? One answer is: “What was done to me, I will do to you.”
Bodies in motion tend to remain in motion. Cycles are difficult to stop. The hazing cycle turns its eternal wheel not just in sports but at all levels of our common life. A recent graduate of a medical residency, now a practicing physician, told me that it is commonly understood that the overwork, the sleep deprivation (which can have deadly consequences) and the abuse (this young doctor saw a surgeon throw a bloody instrument at a resident in an operating room), of medical education continue because they have always existed. “What was done to me, I will do to you.”
The young Brave, pierced and suspended, is relieved of his agony physically scarred, but mentally and spiritually elevated. Who believes that being hit with a bloody surgical instrument makes a medical student a better doctor? Is a doctor who throws an instrument in control of himself? Do you want to be his patient? Clearly, some doctors believe that the cycle of cruelty and humiliation produces good results. It seems clear to me that in some important way these physicians have lost control of the educational process that is, arguably, more important to our society than any other.
Humiliation is cruelty and meanness, and when it is sexual it is perversion, sickness plain and simple. Can cruelty, meanness and perversion ever improve the human spirit or, for that matter, the performance of a physician or a player on the field? I do not believe they can do anything good. Some call football a mean game, and it is undeniable that a certain proclivity for what is mildly called contact (but what is anything but mild) can advance a player’s fortunes. But players who are cruel and mean are rare; far more common are those who can deliver a tackle or block with the impact of a speeding truck, and then offer a hand up and a pat on the back to the boy or man who received the impact. Football is a violent game, but it is not cruel, mean or humiliating in its rules, in its spirit, or in the vast majority of its players’ experience of the game. If you drop a pass in the last second of the championship game, you are embarrassed, but embarrassment is not humiliation. Humiliation is a thing done to people by other people for the lowest of reasons—so that they can experience sick pleasure.
In my recent novel, Fighting in the Shade, the protagonist, the talented football player who wants to join the varsity in what he imagines will be bonds of courage, endurance, and excellence, asks the man who runs the town, a man who in his own youth experienced the ritual of hazing, a man whose tacit approval of hazing keeps the cycle in motion: “Why do you teach us courage by making us kneel to another boy’s [excrement]?”
The man is mean, but he is no fool. He gives an answer that has a theological dimension: “It’s not courage we teach you, Billy. You’ve got that already. It’s solidarity. If all are forced to kneel, then all rise together and resist those who have not. It’s the way of a fallen world, Billy. We all have to suffer, to kneel. When we do it together, when we see that all have done the same thing, then we are bound together in the Fall. And then the others, the lesser ones, kneel before us.”
A fallen world. The man’s explanation to the boy is a perversion of the story of the Garden of Eden. The man believes that the Fall of Man is humiliation, a universal malady, and yet a thing from which strength can come. He believes that strength can come from humiliation only if all share in it, generation after generation, world without end. The man fails to comprehend that after the Fall, human beings can achieve repentance and reconciliation with the world of the spirit. The man’s understanding of solidarity resembles that of criminal gangs—hazing is the football equivalent of “making your bones.”
Is it too extreme to say that hazing is criminal conspiracy? I don’t think so, and if it is conspiracy, then, while it might create solidarity and “omerta” (silence), it cannot create true team spirit, a kind of strength that can never come from humiliation.
The young Brave’s scars are badges of honor, there for all to see, permanent, awesome, inspiring in their symbolism. Rituals of hazing almost always require promises of secrecy. The scars of hazing, of psycho-sexual torture, are permanent, too, but they have nothing to do with honor. They are emblems of darkness, of the fall that is a never-ending descent. I have spoken with those who have experienced hazing, and I have never seen any of these people smile as they told their stories. The tales are told by mouths that wince or grimace or leer. And when there is a leer, it is the expression we saw in the photos from Abu Graib, the ones that made the world wince and grimace.
And now a young man is dead at Florida A&M University.
Young people will always allow themselves to be guided by adults and by other young people who have “made the team.” The only way to eliminate hazing and to elevate sports to the level where body and spirit combine to create qualities of character we can all admire is to deliver harsh penalties to the adults—coaches, administrators, whatever their roles—who tolerate it. When leadership turns toward the light, the young will follow.
Sterling Watson is a professor of literature and creative writing at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida.
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