Is it really hazing? And does it matter if we call it hazing or not?

I found myself in a conversation today about whether or not an offensive video that surfaced this week from a professional fraternity at Syracuse University was hazing or not. This definitely was not the first time I have had this particular conversation, as I have had many variations of this conversation with numerous people throughout the last 20 years, so this is in no way directed at the individuals involved in that conversation. However, this most recent example of a fraternity's bad behavior seemed like an opportune time to point out some of the cultural, psychological, and social forces at work.

The fraternity in this instance immediately claimed the entire episode was intended as "satire," while the Grand Regent representing the fraternity's national organization was quick to conclude, "As our preliminary investigation progressed through the day, it was revealed that the video was a parody, skit, or roast of the active brothers by a pledge class, and not Chapter members hazing, humiliating, or disparaging its pledges as the university had described to our Central Office."

However, the behavior observed in the video checks every box in the definition of hazing provided by HazingPrevention.Org: "Hazing is any action taken or any situation created intentionally that causes embarrassment, harassment or ridicule and risks emotional and/or physical harm to members of a group or team, whether new or not, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate." Embarrassment, harassment or ridicule? Check. To members of a group or team? Check. Whether new or not? Check. Regardless of the person's willingness to participate? Check.

To be sure, regardless of whether or not the behavior was hazing or not, it was clearly wrong. It was homophobic, racist, and sexist, and it is being rightfully condemned by the school, the fraternity, the media, and the general public.

With that said, does it really matter if we call it hazing or not?


Hazing is first and foremost a culture, not just an incident.

In that culture, everyday people are coerced and compelled by powerful psychological, situational, and social forces to do illegal, immoral, and even evil things they would not ordinarily do.

When we fail to identify that culture, we also are failing to protect our members and organizations from that culture.

When we examine the practices, rites, and rituals in organizations with cultures that are tearing people down without building them up, too often members are harassed, ridiculed, and subjugated, and the challenges presented to them often include violent, illegal, or immoral activities that have little or no connection to the purpose of the organization they are joining.

Without a clear, positive purpose for those practices, rites, and rituals that are upheld by the organization, the true mission and purpose of the organization is corroded, which is a core part of my book, Building up without tearing down, which will be released Summer 2018.

In productive rites of passage, the challenges presented are others-centered and purposeful. The rites prepare the new member to care and provide for others, rather than merely providing entertainment, punishment, or subjugation.

When members reflect on and seek the larger meaning of a productive rite of passage, it is self-evident throughout the process because the initiation’s endeavors reflect the organization's goals, mission, and purpose. This allows members to embrace the larger purpose of the process and the organization.

In organizations with cultures of hazing, the experience’s larger significance is absent or obscured, resulting in a state of cognitive dissonance and confusion. When a clear purpose is absent, then the experience itself becomes the larger purpose, a phenomenon psychologists call the “justification of effort.”

If the experience itself, the hazing process, assumes a place in the member's mind as the greatest purpose and value of their membership in the organization, a culture of hazing that counters and undermines the organization’s true mission and purpose is born. 

This is the insidious nature of the culture of hazing, and why it is imperative that we consistently identify things as hazing when we observe behaviors and characteristics that are tearing people down rather than building them up.

Author's note: Parts of this post originally appeared in Building up without tearing down: How to cultivate heroic leadership in you and your organization, which was released Summer 2018.