The Debt of Hazing: The Making of Men & Women


I owe a lot to Hazing. No, this is not one of those "said no one ever" social media memes.

Unfortunately, I have heard many people say some variation of those words to me through the years.

But, the truth is, that Hazing owes a lot to me.

For those of you who are not familiar with my somewhat unique fraternity experience, I spent parts of my first two years pledging two different fraternities.

In those two experiences, Hazing promised big things to me. Hazing promised to forge lifelong relationships with my fraternity brothers. Hazing promised to provide positive character traits, such as integrity, respect, and responsibility. Hazing promised to tear me down, only to make me stronger. All of these promises were broken or left unfulfilled.

Most of all, Hazing promised to make me a man, a promise that Hazing has yet to deliver, despite my multiple passages through its process.

The truth is, Hazing makes young men boys, and young women girls.

"Boys will be boys," and "girls will be girls"

As a father of a five-year-old boy and a 16-month-old boy, I have seen how children develop, first from infants into toddlers, and then toddlers into school-aged children. Likewise, as a professional, I have worked with 18 to 22-year-olds for the last eight years.

Each of us is born into the world with one focus. "Me."

From the time we wake in the wee hours of the morning until the half dozen times we summon our caretakers  from their midnight slumbers, we strive to have our needs met, regardless of how sick, stressed, or tired our parents may be. We are born self-centered, but become interdependent as we grow and develop.

One of the most important developmental tasks for young women and young men is to develop mature interpersonal relationships, which is described as not only a freedom from narcissism, but also a shift from dependence or dominance toward interdependence between equals.

Hazing is at its foundation an act of dominance and power, and I think you would be hard pressed to find those who would describe Hazing as demonstrations of maturity. After all, one of the most common excuses in support of hazing is that "boys will be boys," and "girls will be girls."

Hazing pushes our noble organizations to places where adolescent needs are met.

Playing "dress up"

When I think back to my experience with Hazing, I remember a lot of people playing "dress up," including myself.

As a junior in the second fraternity I joined, I served as scholarship chairman. Despite my reluctance to participate in the chapter's hazing activities, I was convinced that I had to play my role as scholarship chairman to tell our newest members that they were failing to perform up to our organization's standards.

I entered the room that night where the 20-some pledges slept, and I gave quite a performance. In the room with no active members but myself, I screamed myself hoarse. Afterward, I spent several hours talking with some of the biggest pro-hazers in the organization, who were convinced that my mistake proved a hazing-free approach was destined to fail.

It remains the single biggest regret of my life that I gave in and compromised my values that night.

Throughout my experience, both as a pledge and as an active member, I saw many others-women and men-become caricatures of themselves and stereotypical "frat boys" and "sorority girls," despite the fact that I knew many of them did not see themselves in those ways.

Hazing became a way for these women and men to act out these ego-feeding, self-centered roles, without any concern for how they may be perceived by others, both inside and outside of their organizations.

If you doubt the effect of this role-playing on one's psychosocial development, you need only to look at the blogs and tweets for Total Fraternity Move and Total Sorority Move, whose creators and followers are outspoken supporters of Hazing, and ask yourself if they demonstrate a "freedom from narcissism" or a "shift from dependence or dominance toward interdependence between equals."

Five right ways to do rites of passage

I always have believed that Hazing persists because it does meet some human needs, albeit in a dysfunctional way.

Many of us crave, even need, rites of passage. The basic rite of passage includes a separation, an initiation or ordeal, and a return, which by the way, also are the three major parts of the Hero's Journey.

In hazing organizations, new members are separated from both their existing identities and identities as full members of their new organizations. In some cases, this is done by limiting contact with non-members, as well as by using special rules and vocabulary for new members.

In my experience, we were allowed to leave the fraternity house during Hell Week only for classes (and were expected to return immediately), and we were forced to wear degrading T-shirts throughout the week whenever we returned to the house. Collectively, we were referred to as "wops," but in different organizations new members may be called "pledges" or "rookies" to signify their standing as neither non-members nor members.

In the initiation or ordeal phase in hazing organizations, new members oftentimes are tested to their physical or psychological limits. For me, this included forced calisthenics, line-ups, sleep deprivation, theft, vandalism, and others.

With regard to the return, this is when new members become wholly accepted as full members, by virtue of "going through" what others before them have gone through. At this time, they begin to assimilate their new identities as full members, and the duty to continue the Hazing tradition.

But to follow those three phases of rites of passage is akin to completing a paint by number and calling yourself an artist.

For those who have researched contemporary, historical, and traditional rites of passage, there are five critical ingredients.

1. Strength through struggle

Let me be clear: If you hurt somebody during an initiation or rite of passage, you're doing it all wrong. But, that doesn't mean that the experience can't be challenging. At the end of the experience, the initiates should be exhausted from their labor, but that labor should be purposeful, such as performing service for others. (More on that in a minute.) In becoming women and men, it is important to learn how to do things that are emotionally and/or physically demanding. For example, children oftentimes allow emotions such as anger or fear to drive them to fight. However, as adults, it is important to learn to control and direct our emotions, and to fight only for those things worth fighting for. If this sounds like the developmental task of managing one's emotions, you're right.

2. Becoming others-centered

I've discussed this previously, but to reiterate: One of the most important developmental tasks is to develop mature interpersonal relationships, characterized by a freedom from narcissism, as well as a shift from dependence or dominance toward interdependence between equals. We, as human beings, are first and foremost social beings. If we fail to have meaningful, purposeful relationships in concert with others, we fail to live up to our purpose. If we cannot respect others, we cannot respect ourselves.

3. Giving it all away

The third principle of "giving it all away" builds on the principle of "becoming others-centered." When we connect in meaningful and purposeful ways with others, we become responsible for someone or for something else. One of the defining characteristics of becoming women and men is becoming responsible for others, whether children, partners, or their own parents. To put it a different way, if everything you do is for you, how does purpose differ from newborns who seek to fulfill only their own needs, regardless of the impact on others. You may also notice some similarities with the developmental task of developing purpose. In short, there is a level of responsibility and self-discipline that comes when you realize that someone else depends on you for their very life.

4. Aligning your authority

It is at this point that I deviate slightly from David Hearn's work, where he describes this principle as "relinquishing your authority." Hearn advocates for initiates to learn to listen, learn from, and honor those in authority. I believe, however, that in order to be a hero, it is necessary for you to do those things, but also to align your journey with the learnings of others. In the Hero's Journey, a mentor guides the hero, equipping her or him with physical and psychological tools to complete the journey. The hero honors the mentor, but aligns those lessons with the hero's own journey. By aligning your authority, the hero can handle criticism and feedback from others, part of the developmental task of establishing identity.

5. Facing death and overcoming

"The snake that cannot shed its skin perishes." -Friedrich Nietzsche

This is not a physical death, but instead a transformation. In the final stage of the initiation, the girl or boy dies symbolically, and a new woman or man emerges. It is an understanding that through the challenges, frustrations, setbacks, or triumphs we traverse, we develop, we grow, and we become stronger. The scars speak of experience and pain, but also of healing and transformation. Personally, I have a tattoo on my right ankle and a second tattoo on my left shoulder that remind me not of the pain I felt at those times, but of the person I have become as a result. This principle parallels the developmental task of developing integrity.

In the end, if we are to eliminate a culture of hazing in a chapter, group, organization, or team, it is imperative that we deliver on the promise of creating women and men, not enabling girls and boys.

We must commit ourselves to building heroes.