from the Sunday Times of India
How US failed to deal with ragging
29 Mar 2009, 0252 hrs IST, Hank Nuwer
India’s national disgrace with ragging is more common in many industrial countries than even journalists realize.
Japan has vicious sumo wrestler initiations, one newcomer beaten to death by three older wrestlers not long ago. Beatings similar to ragging recently have resulted in killings in the Philippines, Indonesia and the United States.
In the latter three countries ragging is called hazing, the term apparently taken from the old American West for the practice of controlling stock animals. The word ‘hazing’ was later appropriated in the Wild West for the ridicule and rough jokes forced on newcomers called ‘greenhorns.’
Unfortunately, while awareness of hazing in the US media has never been higher, deaths from fraternity and, to a much lesser degree, sorority hazing have continued unabated for 30 years.
The first male fraternity man to die was the son of a former Civil War general at Cornell University in 1873. America has had at least one hazing death — and sometimes many deaths — every year from 1970 to 2009, according to my research.
These pledges or so-called ‘associate members’ die mainly from alcohol poisoning and beatings, but sometimes they die in bizarre ways, including burning to death, drowning, choking on forced substances and getting hit by drunk drivers.
Worse, with a few exceptions, educational programmes to address hazing in American secondary schools before college are mainly non-existent or hastily planned only after an incident occurs.
While high school students do not often die from beatings, they do endure pummelling, paddling, and worse, sexual abuse ending in rectal tearing from objects such as pens and brooms inserted by their gleeful, sadistic peers. Two football players from a small New Mexico town pleaded guilty in recent days to sodomizing a so-called ‘rookie’ teammate.
These high-school hazers take inspiration from American professional athletes who delight in tormenting, humiliating and savagely beating rookies — many of these incidents being treated as humorous and part of the game by US sportswriters.
Moreover, the hazing frenzy in North America is not limited to the US. Canada’s junior hockey programme has seen newcomers subject to sexual abuse, and one rookie quit McGill University’s football programme amid claims he was sexually hazed.
And beatings and sexual abuse during initiations in prestigious South African secondary academies have only recently sparked parents and concerned citizens to begin campaigns similar to India’s anti-ragging efforts to force school administrators to ban all such so-called ‘welcoming’ activities.
India’s attempts to impose a lifetime ban on those caught ragging is admirable (though likely to have educators mired in appeals and litigation), but if bans in the US are any indication, they are doomed to failure. Hazing used to be practiced out in the open in the US, but when perpetrators faced expulsion from school and fraternity, plus misdemeanor or felony hazing charges, they took the practice underground.
Beatings continued in secrecy, particularly in African-American and Latino groups that admire warrior ability to endure pain and sacrifice. Coerced alcohol initiations among international, national and local fraternities and sororities not only escalated but they evolved into creative games. This month a young sorority woman pleaded guilty to giving a fraternity pledge at Utah State University a fatal administering of booze during a games session. Supposedly it was a ‘reward’ for the pledge to be hazed by women instead of fraternity brothers for one night.
Is there anything that can be done about practices such as ragging and hazing other than throwing one’s hands up in disgust and outrage?
I think there is. Having written and studied about hazing since 1975, after a hazing death occurred at the Nevada University where I attended graduate school, i believe these are positive developments in the US:
National and international fraternities and sororities themselves have come down hard on hazers, expelling individual and individual chapters caught violating rules.
National organizations such as HazingPrevention.org and Stophazing.org provide educational programmes, as do risk management corporations such as the Human Equation which provides online anti-hazing educational courses.
Criminal laws gradually have been tightened state by state, mainly because the parents of dead victims have lobbied hard for felony hazing charges in states like Florida and California. Civil litigation (including awards of US$14 million) also serves as a deterrent — at least to the elders who are university administrators or fraternity officials.
But in the end, it is going to take a paradigm shift where young people themselves begin to universally condemn hazing before true reform can be expected to become the reality.
And even if a decrease in ragging/hazing does occur due to toughened national laws in India and the US and elsewhere, i have no doubt hazing will crop up again among students sometime in the future.
As i have written in my books, Wrongs of Passage and the Hazing Reader, hazing and ragging are indeed a weed in the Garden of Academe. Stamp it out in one quadrangle and it flares up again in the next. More than a weed, hazing and ragging are a true scourge, allowing us to see in our young people the kind of viciousness that erupted in the Americans holding pens for prisoners of war at Abu Ghraib.
Only when our young people gain a respect for human rights will these vicious human rites truly disappear. I pray they do disappear, but my research demonstrates that it will not disappear altogether in my lifetime, or in the lifetime of anyone reading this commentary.
And that is a sad commentary on human affairs indeed.
Hank Nuwer is a professor at Indiana University (retired from IUPUI: now with Franklin College) in the US and has written four books on hazing.