Wednesday, October 11, 2017

It Is Time to End Pledging

“Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” – Lord Acton

In 1971, a psychologist at Stanford named Phil Zimbardo received a grant from the Department of Defense to conduct a study on the impact of incarceration on prisoners. Instead of studying actual inmates at a real prison, Zimbardo had a different idea – to create his own simulated prison. Over the summer, he transformed the basement of the psychology building at Stanford into a prison, complete with bars, cells, and a mess hall. He recruited 16 students to participate in the study. Applicants had to undergo a rigorous psychological evaluation. Once the students were selected, eight were randomly assigned to be the prisoners, the other eight randomly assigned to be the guards.

The guards were only given two rules: keep the prisoners imprisoned at all times, and do not physically abuse the prisoners. Otherwise, the guards were left to run the prison as they saw fit.

The rest of the story is now a part of psychological folklore. The study, which was supposed to last for five weeks, was abruptly cancelled on the fourth day because the behavior of the guards became so abusive that two of the prisoners suffered emotional breakdowns. Their abuse of the prisoners, in a matter of days, became increasingly severe; sleep deprivation, lineups, food deprivation, and a variety of other dehumanizing activities quickly manifested themselves as the norm in Zimbardo’s imaginary prison.

The Stanford Prison Experiment, as it is now known, illustrated in a powerful and real way a dark reality of human nature – that power corrupts. As Zimbardo himself noted, “absolute power in a novel setting will lead even good, decent people to engage in inhumane, abusive behavior.”

Absolute power. In a novel setting. Sound familiar?

Hazing is a societal problem that is much, much bigger than fraternities and sororities. In the 2007 National Study of Student Hazing, over half of students involved in clubs and organizations on college campuses reported experiencing hazing in high school. Just last week, it was reported that Colgate University had suspended the men’s rowing team because of alcohol related hazing. Evolutionary Psychologist Alco Cimino has suggested that hazing is an evolutionary adaptation – literally part of our nature – by which we prevent new group members from exploiting the benefits of the group without contributing to its success. Hazing is not just a fraternity problem. It is a societal problem. It is in our DNA.

But why is hazing so much more severe in college fraternities than in any other group? Why does fraternity hazing so frequently result in injury or death? When I speak with students about hazing, I point out the fact that 44 fraternity/sorority members died between the last two non-Greek hazing deaths (Ken Christiansen in 2001, and Robert Champion in 2011). And dozens more have died since. Why are fraternities (and to a lesser extent, sororities) killing their members with such frightening regularity? What about the college fraternity experience makes it uniquely prone to dangerous, deadly hazing?

Absolute power. In a novel setting.

On a sports team, in a band, in the military, and in literally every other group we commonly associate with hazing, the power of hazers is mitigated by a responsible adult who is ultimately in control of the group. If I am a freshman on the college baseball team, I may go along with some low-level hazing just to be a good sport, but I am not likely to subject myself to anything that I perceive to be particularly dangerous or degrading because, at the end of the day, the person hazing me has very little real power over me. The coach of my team ultimately decides who plays, and if I’m better than the guy hazing me, I’ll play over him regardless of whether or not I subject myself to his abuse.

The fraternity pledging process, on the other hand, gives the hazer absolute power over the person he is hazing. If I am a freshman fraternity member, I am led to believe that if I do not willingly subject myself to the whims of my abuser, that he has the power to remove me from the pledging process and prevent my initiation. There are no adults in the mix – advisors have no real authority in the chapter, particularly in decisions about membership (who gets a bid, who gets initiated). The power differential between hazer and victim is more pronounced in the college fraternity than in any other group on or off the college campus. When we add into this mix the social status that many fraternities enjoy, dangerous levels of alcohol consumption, lower levels of moral development, heightened hypermasculinity, and the belief of many undergraduates that their fraternities are inherently social in nature, we have a recipe for disaster.

Researcher Aldo Cimino has argued that hazing is an evolutionary response to the need for groups to prevent free-riders – those who would exploit the benefits of the group without contributing to the group’s success. He has also demonstrated that the groups with the most perceived benefits are those most prone to dangerous hazing. It is in our nature to haze, and fraternities with their social clout on campus provide an environment ripe for dangerous, deadly hazing. 

Knowing that we are programmed to haze, and knowing that severe hazing is more common in groups providing the most benefits to their members, and knowing everything we know about the cognitive and moral development of adolescent males, we still permit membership structures that give 19 and 20-year-old men absolute power over the lives of their 18-year-old new members.

This is the definition of insanity.

We cannot have membership structures that give absolute power to 19-year-old fraternity members and not expect them to abuse that power. We can no longer have a serious conversation about hazing prevention without first addressing the power differential inherent in the fraternity pledging process. It is time to end the outdated, antiquated process of pledging.

Will ending pledging get rid of hazing? Of course not. Newly initiated members will still be subjected to those members who feel newcomers must earn their membership. But by eliminating the power differential inherent in the pledging process, we empower the new members to stick up for themselves and walk away from activities they feel are dangerous. We lessen their tolerance of severe forms of hazing, thereby reducing its likelihood of occurring. Fraternities engage in abusive hazing because they can – because they know their pledges wills subject themselves to it. Once they realize they cannot – that newly initiated members will not subject themselves to abuse in the name of “earning” something they have already earned, the culture will begin to change.

Then, and only then, can we begin a meaningful conversation about helping chapters develop meaningful rites of passage for their new members – activities that build solidarity and create a sense of accomplishment in ways that do not involve abusive or dangerous behavior. But as long as this period of trial membership remains, conversations about replacing hazing with other activities are an exercise in futility. As long as we give 19-year-old men absolute power over the lives of 18-year-old men, we will continue to see them abuse that power in dangerous and deadly ways.

As fraternal organizations may be slow to adopt new membership structures, campuses are uniquely positioned to serve as a catalyst for this change. Through sanctioning for lower-level hazing cases, campuses conduct offices can require disciplined organizations to immediately initiate all future new members. Campuses can adopt blanket policies requiring that student organizations eliminate pledging and all other forms of “trial membership.” As long as any such requirements are either the result of a campus disciplinary proceeding or are universally applied to all student groups (and not just fraternities), campuses would be wholly within their rights to begin promulgating such requirements.

It is time to start this conversation now, because there is a dirty secret that no one has had the courage to utter, but that I will state here for the record. What happened to Timothy Piazza at Penn State, or to Max Gruver at LSU, could happen tomorrow in 75 percent of fraternity houses in America. Alcohol-related hazing is frighteningly common. These deaths were not isolated incidents. They are the inevitable result of a system in which we mix an alcohol-fueled party culture, low moral development, hypermasculinity, tradition, and the forces of evolution with a heaping scoop of absolute power. It is a recipe for disaster, and it is well past time that we fixed it.

Ending pledging will not fix the problem of hazing, but failing to end pledging will prevent us from ever truly fixing it.