Friday, January 30, 2009

Hazing and the Idols of the Marketplace

One of my students recently sent me a link to a year-old news article about hazing. It reports the results of a university study, in which researchers concluded that there's an awful lot of hazing still going on, even though most clubs and fraternities have banned it.

The most interesting thing to me about the study is its definition of hazing. It includes binge drinking, singing in public, and events (like skits) where participants are mocked.

Back when I was an undergrad, I was in both ROTC and Sigma Chi (a national fraternity). I didn't drink, and still don't. I don't smoke or do drugs, and never have. I've never been to a strip club. At no point did my fellow participants ever force (or try to pressure) me to do any of those things. (Indeed, I was not the only non-drinker in my fraternity.) I've always been fairly proud of my chapter, in part because it was so welcoming to a square, goody-two-shoes like me. If you'd asked me before I read this study whether the Iota Alpha chapter of Sigma Chi hazed, I would have said no, emphatically.

And I still do.

It's easy to define your way into a problem, and it looks to me (from the news article -- which might be distorting the study a bit; it's hard to tell) like that's what the researchers have done. Sir Francis Bacon might accuse them of worshiping the Idols of the Marketplace, his way of saying that they allowed the fuzziness of words to get in the way of truthful science.

When I was in the fraternity, I sang in public. It's something Sigs do. We serenade. (We have, in fact, perhaps the most famous fraternity serenading song in existence.) As a member of ROTC, I called cadence during runs. It's part of the culture -- a thing that everyone does, not a punishment inflicted only on newbies. If you don't like either of those things, you don't join. Similarly, if you don't like singing in public, don't join the church choir, or go Christmas caroling. I don't know very many people who would count singing in such groups as hazing, but the researchers apparently did. By doing so, they increased the amount of hazing in the country, not in actuality, but in the realm of words -- in Bacon's marketplace.

Okay, you might say, putting singing in that definition was a little iffy, but the drinking stuff seems reasonable.

Not necessarily. I knew guys in the fraternity who drank a lot during parties. I knew guys who didn't drink at all. The thing is, according to my understanding of the study's "hazing" definition, all of the guys who willingly filled their cups with more beer than was strictly healthy were being hazed.

By whom, exactly?

The last I checked, a verb requires a subject. Who is doing that hazing, when the definitions are so broad? Who hazed the handful of Brothers I knew who engaged in binge-drinking? They certainly didn't have to. I never had a single beer, nor a single calorie of heat from Brothers over my lack of enthusiasm for alcohol. Who hazed me, when I went to public places and sang with my Brothers? It was fun. I liked doing it, or would have done something else. If I had to point a finger, I wouldn't know where to aim it.

I have no doubt that hazing is alive and well. I also have no doubt that in some cases, it does involve binge drinking or singing -- when it is forced for the amusement of observers, rather than volunteered for the enjoyment of participants.

But it looks suspiciously to me like the researchers in this case looked at Greek organizations, wrote down a list of every activity they could think of Greeks engaging in, and made that their definition of hazing.

In short, it looks like, to them, being Greek equals being hazed.

If that's true, they're not really doing science. To understand what they are doing, you'll first need to recall that their definition of hazing also includes public mockery or embarrassment.

And that's what I suspect they're doing: They're trying to embarrass organizations they don't approve of, in the hopes they'll shrink away and cease to exist.

Put bluntly: The scientists are hazing the Greeks.

And in doing so, ironically, they've proved their implied thesis. Being Greek does equal being hazed after all. But now, it's by academics.

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