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Hazing Narratives

Hazing at Dartmouth is no secret. Yet the nature of hazing is complex, and many of the narratives that have appeared recently fail to capture this complexity. Years ago, Professor of Anthropology Hoyt Alverson published an ethnography on the social lives of Dartmouth students. While his paper did not focus on hazing, fraternity initiation practices are a clear correlate of the social phenomena he described.

I served as President of Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity during my senior year at Dartmouth. My fraternity was the defining part of my Dartmouth experience, and it made me a better man. SigEp was stereotypically the “nice guy” fraternity at the College. We do not have a typical “pledge model” for new members; instead, the Balanced Man Program influences our fraternity culture and practices, including our commitment against the hazing that Andrew Lohse detailed in January.

Place yourself in the shoes of a sophomore male for the moment. Fraternity membership offers a stable residential community, powerful bonds of friendship, enhanced social life, status among peers, and more opportunities in the sexual/dating market. Unaffiliated students at Dartmouth are left as dorm-to-dorm nomads under the College’s broken housing policy. They have to work harder to carve out their own communities, or they tag along at their friends’ Greek houses.

I want to disabuse you of the notion that hazing is always a one-way ritual of dehumanization. It has evolved to suit both pledges and Greek organizations. For fraternities, hazing deters free riders (a constant problem), and it is a way to have fun and strengthen group bonds. For new members, it is a means to demonstrate willingness to sacrifice for the house, to show pride in membership, and to bond with fellow members. In addition, pledges who undergo “harder” pledge terms seem to enjoy more social status on campus; their trial by ordeal signals to their peers that they can succeed in academics and extracurricular activities, even while drinking heavily and making a large time commitment to Greek membership. Peer pressure does play a role here, but to focus on that aspect of fraternity life is to misunderstand Dartmouth’s social groups.

Imagine my shock when as a fraternity president one of the major issues we dealt with was the desire of some of our new members to be hazed more, like other fraternities. Their peers were carrying signs, protecting their red hats, carrying lunchboxes, wearing costumes, and running errands for older brothers or for sorority sisters. Our pledges wanted trials of their own, too, as a matter of pride, both to make membership meaningful and as a social signal of their dedication.

As Professor Alverson wrote,

The emphasis on social form or ritual…suggests just how much “substance-use” on campus is about belonging to and enacting of scripted roles in social groups. These activities entail high value payoffs for students: blowing off steam, hanging out, meeting and mating with the opposite (or same) sex, demonstrating athletic prowess, affirming or creating social bonds, overcoming reserve and shyness, fitting in and getting ahead amongst peers, overcoming gender stereotypes, flouting societal norms, raging, and having one hell of a lot of fun.

At this point, I must make a distinction between “Small h” and “Big H” hazing, a line that is arbitrary but necessary. “Small h” hazing involves enjoyable experiences that groups provide to bond their new members. At SigEp, we wake up our new initiates after Rush, we have a pre-dawn breakfast, and then we hike up to the Gile Mountain Fire Tower with older brothers and alumni. Pledges are required to eat meals, work out, and do new activities with brothers throughout every week. They embarrass themselves by serenading the sororities on one night of the term (and enjoy every minute of it). “Small h” hazing abounds in Dartmouth’s Greek organizations, sports teams, and performing groups; it includes blindfolded “kidnappings” from dorm rooms, treasure hunts, skits, missions, and sometimes just old-fashioned hanging out, watching movies, and drinking. There are no villains or victims in these events.

“Big H” hazing is the sadistic, painful, humiliating, degrading, evil stuff that makes you question the future of humanity. Andrew Lohse’s kiddie pools of vomit suffice as an example. Better members and stronger communities are not built in this way; violent hazing is just an exercise of raw power over others. I believe that this kind of hazing is rare at Dartmouth but it does exist, as Lohse has detailed.

As one of Lohse’s brothers writes, “Dartmouth is better than that. The Fraternities should be better than that, too.” He is absolutely right. Yet a solution to the complex problem of hazing must recognize the nature of the problem we are facing. Many members view hazing of pledges to be no different than hazing of new, overworked Wall Street analysts; the individual is willing to sacrifice personally to be part of the whole. To my mind, we face a problem of some very poor individual choices in certain houses, but not of institutional exploitation writ large.


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