No greater love
Why hazing 'victims' are also often proud survivors
TONY KELLER | Oct 31, 2005
Last week, McGill University shut down its football program for the remainder of the season after a hazing incident in which rookies were subjected to an initiation rite known as "Dr. Broom." And junior hockey's Windsor Spitfires saw their coach and general manager suspended after a rookie was allegedly punished for refusing to go through the initiation rite of "hot-boxing": being crammed, naked, into the team bus's tiny washroom, along with other new players.
This isn't the first time you've read about hazing, and it won't be the last. Despite endless attempts to stamp it out, it always seems to reappear. Why? Because even though these rituals may be repulsive to outsiders, those who practise them often seem to feel that there's something defensible, and even necessary, about them.
Consider hazing's long history:
June 2002: Baseball players Ichiro Suzuki, Ryan Franklin and Joel Pinero, rookies with the Seattle Mariners, fly with their team from Baltimore to Seattle -- while dressed as Hooters girls. Suzuki said that he got such a kick out of the initiation ritual he wore the outfit home to meet his wife. Other teams have similar unofficial rites: NHL star Anson Carter told the Boston Globe that when he played at Michigan State University, rookies had to rollerblade around campus while wearing women's clothes. "Nobody gets hurt by it," he said. "Nobody's in the hospital. It's just a way of promoting chemistry."
August 2000: A study finds that 79 per cent of college athletes surveyed in the United States have been subjected to what the study defines as hazing -- but only 12 per cent of the athletes think what they went through was hazing. The study, funded by New York's Alfred University, says hazing is "any humiliating activity expected of you to join a group, regardless of your willingness to participate."
October 2, 1999: At a University of Vermont hockey team party, rookies have beer poured on them; perform naked pushups over glasses of warm beer, into which they dip their private parts; and do the "elephant walk," parading while holding the genitals of the man ahead of them. One freshman complained and sued; the team was suspended for the season. But several rookies told the media they weren't traumatized by what happened, and that it brought the players closer together. Benoit Lampron, a Canadian on the team, told Maclean's at the time: "This is pretty much what we do in Canada. There, it's no big deal."
January 1997: Dateline NBC airs video of a U.S. Marine Corps "blood pinning," in which Marines who earned their gold wings for 10 successful parachute jumps had the medals pounded into their chests by superiors. The inductees grimaced and cried out as the pins went into their chests, but at the end of the ceremony, with bloodstains on their T-shirts, they embraced their comrades and tormentors.
January 1995: An amateur video of a Canadian Airborne Regiment hazing ritual comes to light, showing drunken soldiers eating feces and vomit. Coming on the heels of revelations of abuse by the regiment in Somalia, the government decides to disband the Airborne. Later, another video shows soldiers subjecting themselves to electric shocks. Maj.-Gen. Brian Vernon tells the Globe and Mail that, in this second video, the men were testing their pain tolerance, and this was "male bonding" that should not be discouraged in a fighting unit.
400 BC, Sparta, Ancient Greece: At an early age, boys are removed from their families to be reared as a group, in preparation for a lifetime as soldiers in antiquity's most feared army. Among the activities to toughen them up is an ordeal known as diamastigosis, a contest to see who could endure the most severe flogging. Turns out Toronto Maple Leafs coach Pat Quinn was right when he said, "I guess hazing's been around since Plato's time, probably. I don't have any particular answer for it."
Here's something worth pondering: why are hazing's victims often so eager to go through it? Why don't most of them feel like victims?
One thing to keep in mind is that hazing isn't the same as bullying. When someone is bullied, he's being reminded that he's an outsider and an inferior, and always will be. It's ritualistic humiliation, for the benefit of the people doing the humiliating. As anyone who's ever been picked on knows, the weaker party gets nothing out of the exchange.
Hazing is also a ritual of humiliation and subjugation. Sometimes it's nothing more than bullying, or worse. To take one horrific example, Russia's chief military prosecutor reported than in the first half of 2004, 25 Russian soldiers were killed in hazing incidents, while another 60 were driven to suicide.
But hazing usually aims at something other than harming its subject and keeping him out of the group. Instead, it's a ritual used to remind him of his inferior, rookie status -- while admitting him into the group. That's why, unlike bullying, hazing usually involves some degree of consent, and both parties often claim that, however sickening it looks to outsiders, it helped them grow closer as a team.
We live in a liberal society, built around the primacy of rights and individual choice. But there are places in our society that are run in part on a whole other set of pre-modern ideals. It's not for nothing that hazing is a military tradition, adopted by sports teams, fraternities, gangs and organized crime. You are not interviewing the team to see if it suits your needs; it is testing you. And it is testing you because one day it may need to ask you to sacrifice yourself for it, maybe even lay down your life.
That's just not part of the arrangement when you sign up to do some 9-to-5 accounting at Acme & Co. You aren't going to be asked to run into a burning building, or assault enemy trenches, or drop the gloves against the toughest guy at a crosstown firm, in order to raise Acme & Co.'s quarterly earnings by half a cent per share.
But what if you're a member of a junior hockey team? Hazing, when it isn't just mindless bullying, is trying to reinforce the values of the organization: duty, hierarchy and subservience of the individual to the group. Most of us wouldn't want to work for a company based on those principles. But the military runs on those principles, and has to, and to some extent so do sports teams.
There are obviously good arguments against hazing. Even when it doesn't get out of hand, it often backfires, and sows division. There may be better ways to build team spirit. But psychologists generally recognize that hazing has deep roots, and must be replaced with something: as one sports psychologist told the Montreal Gazette, after the McGill football incident, maybe community service or a team canoe trip? I suspect that for most of us, that sounds a lot more appealing than an evening of abuse.
But the power of hazing -- and the weird pleasure that even its recipients often take from it -- may come from the fact that it is risqué, dangerous and humiliating. If it is also secret, and so embarrassing that it must be kept secret, that too can be part of its power and appeal. Shared secrets bind. They create intimacy.
Intimacy? Notice how many of the hazing incidents listed above have a sexual quality to them, involving hyper-masculine organizations engaging in levels of gender-bending that would not be out of place on Church Street during Toronto's Gay Pride Day. And yet your average, heterosexual, male 16-year-old hockey player, if asked whether he'd like to stand in a room naked with a bunch of other guys and grab their penises, would probably tell you that the idea repulsed him. Maybe that's why it's a hazing ritual.
The team wants to remind you that you are smaller than it, and inferior to the established players. But it also wants to find out just how badly you want in. Are you really willing to abandon yourself? To put Us ahead of You? Basically, it wants the answer to a question that potential wives wonder of potential husbands: is your love true?
One way to find out is to ask pledges to engage in activities they find repulsive. Just as courtly love sees the knight proving his love for the woman through sacrifice, so hazing involves sacrificing something the initiate holds dear -- for example, his masculinity, for an evening -- to prove his devotion to the team. And what more obvious way to demonstrate his submission than through the most primal act possible, namely mock-sexually submitting to the senior members of the team.
Freud would have a field day.
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