A pledge against greek hazing

Hazing remains a fundamental problem for greek letter organizations nationwide.

Brian Reinken

In a move to reduce hazing, the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon announced a national ban on pledging this month. Pledging is the period during which prospective fraternity or sorority members familiarize themselves with their organization’s traditions and history. Horrific hazing rituals infamously plague this period, and sadly, this has been slow to change.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon is one of the deadliest fraternities in America, with 10 deaths related to alcohol, drugs or hazing since 2006. Unfortunately, it is not the only Greek letter organization whose members mistreat their pledges.

One hardly needs to recount the hazing stories that commonly make headlines nationwide. Each seems more horrific than the last. Last year, in one particularly gruesome incident, fraternity brothers in Wilmington College’s Gamma Phi Gamma so viciously towel-whipped their pledges that doctors were forced to surgically remove one victim’s testicle.

Violence, however, is only one of hazing’s three strains, according to the University of Minnesota’s student conduct code. Another type is harassment hazing, in which victims must endure undue amounts of stress or discomfort. For example, perpetrators may deprive their victims of sleep or force them to wear humiliating clothing. The third strain is subtle hazing, which can include name-calling, discipline or social isolation.

Violent hazing’s lurid nature frequently places it under media scrutiny. Fraternities are often the focal point of hazing stories, such as The Atlantic’s cover story this month, but sororities are equally guilty.

While sorority hazing may include gratuitous violence, members often mistreat pledges in a different way. Victims have reported physical humiliation, such as body shaming or members classifying them by their breast size. Sometimes hazing will involve forcing young women to have sex with a fraternity member before the organization will accept them.

Perhaps because sorority hazing is not always as theatrical or violent as that of fraternities, the media seems to give it less attention. The implication is disturbing: Unless hazing results in surgery or death, it’s tacitly acceptable behavior, and it doesn’t constitute news. Hazing has become engrained in American culture.

This reality may jeopardize Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s efforts to end hazing merely by banning the pledge period. Most schools, including the University of Minnesota, already enforce strict anti-hazing rules, and yet the problem persists. Perpetrators merely find new and more secretive ways of seeing out their crimes.

The difficulty with hazing is that its victims are not random. Rather, they seek inclusion in a particular community, and they understand that initiation may include hazing. Their desire to belong discourages them from reporting their negative experiences. In time, moreover, hazing’s victims often become its perpetrators; those who successfully endure hazing become part of the system that perpetuates it. Universities, parents and/or the media may view this internal cycle with dismay, but it’s difficult to disrupt from outside. 

From this viewpoint, hazing seems to be a fundamental flaw of the greek system’s structure, rather than something that arises from individual members’ misbehavior. Certainly, individuals should face punishment for barbaric behavior — and the greek industry is notorious for shifting the blame of hazing lawsuits to students, thus ensuring that they are — but something is enabling their violence in the first place.

Many greek letter organizations are more than 100 years old. Before admission, pledges must memorize their organization’s history and traditions. However, college life and American culture have significantly changed over the past centuries, and not every tradition should survive.

Anti-bullying and social inclusion campaigns are perhaps more prominent now than ever before. Education, moreover, is no longer a privilege of fortunate white men. Why, then, should an archaic and elitist institution — especially one we can so often associate with violence and debauchery — remain so close to the core of college life?

Professional, cultural and LGBT fraternities and sororities are valuable alternatives to traditional social greek letter organizations. Because these societies’ prospective members already share a common interest, cause or identity, their loyalty to the organization is unquestionable from the beginning. This stands in stark contrast to traditional social organizations, whose members may apply because of family traditions, vague notions of future financial success or simply a desire to fit in with a crowd.

Of course, hazing is not just a problem of greek letter organizations, and it’s extremely doubtful that every organization includes hazing as an initiation ritual. However, many of these organizations do have an undeniable connection to hazing.

Thus, while Sigma Alpha Epsilon’s ban on pledging may not end hazing, it will hopefully foster discussion about how to rethink the traditional greek letter system. Brutality is inimical to higher education. We should not permit it to reside within
college culture.