Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Hazing Myth - New Members Want to be Hazed

In my line of work, I get to spend a lot of time having frank, open and honest conversations with chapter leaders about what really goes on in their chapters. In fact, my experience has taught me that bringing in someone from the outside to have confidential conversations with chapter leaders is money incredibly well-spent, because it provides opportunities to cut through the BS and discuss the things really going on in a chapter. Campus visits that offer these types of conversations are often my most productive. In order to get students to think differently about what might be going on in their chapters, it helps to provide them with a safe space to have open, honest conversations about what is actually going on.

I have also written previously of the “regression to the mean” that happens within a given campus context. Over time, fraternity new member programs on any given campus come to generally resemble one another, and a salient campus culture emerges for what a “normal” new member program looks like. Organizations who deviate from this campus culture initially (i.e. a new chapter that begins doing things the right way immediately after colonization) will be pulled towards it over time. Variance within these systems is not rewarded. Fraternity new members hear these myths and are generally aware of the norm when they join a fraternity on campus – they hear stories from their friends in high school and come into an organization expecting a certain amount of hazing, depending on the cultural norms on the campus in question. Sometimes the hazing will be worse than they expected, and sometimes it won’t be quite as bad as they had expected.

Sometimes a chapter will decide, for various reasons (it gets into trouble, it elects a conscientious president, it gets new chapter advisors, etc.), to try to address its hazing culture and deviate in some way from the campus norm. The chapter will choose some of the most dangerous or high risk activities in which it engages and eliminate them from the new member education program.  In doing so, they often make a critical mistake – they fail to replace those high risk activities with other meaningful new member activities. They eliminate hazing, but they put nothing meaningful back in its place. This mistake is the most common one that I see chapters make when they try to address hazing, and it has very predictable consequences.

I recently met with a group of chapter leaders who had made this mistake – they had gotten into trouble two years ago for hazing and had cleaned a few things up in their new member program. They took some bad things away, but they put nothing back in place of those things. The results of this were both typical and predictable – they felt the pledges didn’t come together and didn’t really get much out of the new member period. And they stated to me what many chapter leaders over the years have stated to me after trying to deviate from the campus hazing norm:

“The pledges told us they were disappointed that they weren’t hazed. They wanted us to haze them more.”

My guess is that I am not the only person working in the fraternity/sorority industry who has ever heard a statement like this. I suspect this type of mentality is fairly common.

So how do I respond when I hear this logic?

“When your pledges tell you that they wish they had been hazed more, what they really mean is that they wish their new member experience had been more meaningful.”

Much has been written about adolescent men and their need for meaningful rites of passage. They seek meaning and a deep sense of connection in their experiences. They seek to bond with others in powerful ways. They seek challenge and accomplishment. One of the primary reasons that hazing not only persists but is often glorified as a positive experience is because, in the short term, it provides these feelings of meaning and accomplishment.  Take a group of 20-30 young men and put them through Hell for 12 weeks and they will take a sense of pride and accomplishment out of that experience. They will feel closer to one another because of that experience. They will derive meaning from that experience.

But there are other ways to create a meaningful experience that do not involve hazing. There are ways to facilitate authentic, meaningful conversations that will build trust and connectivity within a group. There are ways to facilitate a sense of accomplishment that do not involve physical or mental abuse. It takes time, energy and creativity to develop and implement these activities. That’s another reason that hazing is so prevalent – it is much easier to implement. Any idiot can scream at a group of pledges who don’t perform well on a pledge test. It takes a little more creativity to facilitate a conversation or activity that facilitates meaningful bonding.

We have failed our fraternities by completely decentralizing the new member education experience and expecting 19-21 year old men to come up with constructive programs on their own. Most chapters simply have not spent the time and energy required to develop meaningful new member education activities. They take the simplest path to creating meaning within their new member programs – they haze. I can offer a brief, bulleted list of what the fraternity new member process looks like in 90 percent of fraternity chapters across America:

  • Bid night – get shitfaced.
  • Have pledges memorize things from the national new member book. Give them a weekly test. If they fail the test, yell at them and make them do calisthenics.
  • Run errands for older members in the name of “getting to know the older members.” This may or may not involve getting signatures in book or soliciting interviews with these older members while performing menial tasks for them.
  • Big brother night – get shitfaced again.
  • Lots of cleaning.
  • Hell Week! Lots of yelling and calisthenics and cleaning and getting shitfaced.
  • Initiation. Welcome to the frat, brother. Now let’s get shitfaced!

We have failed to change this pattern because we have failed to help our fraternity chapters develop more meaningful ways to bring a group together. The formula above is prevalent because it is the easiest, simplest way to bring a group of new members together and foster a sense of accomplishment. It requires zero effort, zero creativity, and zero initiative.

If you are a campus-based advisor, here is how you can make a difference: Set a meeting with every fraternity executive board on your campus. Block off two hours for each chapter. Begin the meeting by asking them about the purpose of their new member education program. After hearing their thoughts, provide them with an alternative framework – that the new member education process is about building good members of the chapter. Once they buy into this concept (they will), ask them to make a bulleted list of 8-10 characteristics to describe the ideal chapter member (if we agree that the pledge process is about building good members, it helps to define what a good member looks like). Some chapters will struggle with this, some will not. Push them. Get them to think both in terms of tangible behaviors (i.e. shows up to things, pays his dues) and intangible values (a man of integrity, an honest person, etc.). Once they come up with that list of ideal member qualities, help them brainstorm 3-4 activities for each of those qualities on that list that would either teach that quality to new members or give new members an opportunity to demonstrate or practice that quality. You’ll be amazed at the things that they come up with. So will they. They will amaze themselves at the meaningful activities that they are able to come up with in just a few short hours of brainstorming.

At the end of this exercise, each chapter will have a list of 30-40 MEANINGFUL new member activities that they can use to replace some of the stupid things they are doing that really have no point or purpose. It will make the new member programs on your campus better, and it will reduce the likelihood of hazing creeping back in to the chapter, because everyone, including the new members, will see and understand the benefits of a meaningful  and purposeful new member program.

New members don’t want to be hazed, and I suspect that 90 percent of chapter members don’t want to engage in hazing (10 percent of society has sociopathic/psychopathic tendencies…). Chapters haze because it is the only way they know how to create a meaningful experience for their new members. We need to spend time and energy showing them a better way. We need to invest resources in helping them come up with better ways to provide meaningful experiences in ways that will work towards constructive ends and that are not dangerous, demeaning or degrading.

We need to be better at our jobs. This is a good place to start.