Monday, October 20, 2014

Hazing in Sayreville, or, Suffering and Belonging

Over the past decade Sayreville, New Jersey has consistently had one of the state's top high school football teams. They have also had a locker room culture that borders on the horrific. Everyone seems to agree that the upperclassmen regularly tormented freshmen:
“Hootie hoo,” the older players yelled before their home game that night, flicking the lights on and off and on again. Then they tripped a freshman in a T-shirt and football pants, letting loud music muffle any noise the boy made as he fell. Two pinned the younger boy’s arms, while others punched and kicked him — not viciously, but hard enough to matter, two witnesses said. He curled into the fetal position and was groped by his attackers.
This is all in the news because somebody alleged that some of this went beyond mere assault to actual rape. I will offer no opinion on whether that is true. My interest is in the relationship between intense hazing and the success of all male groups, whether in football, war, or just about anything else.

Hazing is as old as humanity. We call the ancient forms “initiation,” but most of the rituals anthropologists would put in that category have involved the infliction of suffering on the initiate. Some of the tribal rites that cause romantics to get all misty-eyed about the simple lives of hunter-gatherers were violent to a degree that puts the bullies of Sayreville to shame: adult circumcision, scarification, gang rape. Many Indian tribes sent 13-year-old boys out into the woods or the desert to fend for themselves for weeks, hoping that some combination of hunger, thirst, loneliness, and either freezing cold or sunstroke would make them delirious, giving them a glimpse of the spirit realm. Sometimes they were drugged with powerful hallucinogens before they were dumped alone in the wilderness. Across the plains boys were starved and sweated until they were near breakdown, then made to walk in a circle and chant while they were whipped until they collapsed.

Every sort of intense human in-group has practiced initiation rituals, from religious cults to terrorist bands. Modern militaries created something called “basic training” that serves as an initiation for new soldiers, and in many places that his been taken to horrific lengths. Today in the U.S., the Army has eased off on the hazing side of training, while the Marines have tried to keep it tough, and partly as a result you see a lot more bumper stickers for the Marines.

Suffering together creates strong bonds between people. This seems to be a deep fact of human nature that no amount of hand-wringing about abuse can undo. The bond between soldiers who have fought together is famous, and it seems to be stronger among those who went through really tough times and lost comrades than among those who had less violent experiences. Hazing of new members by veterans seems to be a pretty good substitute. If you want to create a group with a really strong sense of togetherness and purpose, make it hard to get in, and be sure to impose lots of pain and suffering on new recruits.

And yet while I recognize this analytically, it turns my stomach. Even if we agree that bullies in these circumstances are playing some sort of positive social role, what they do is still mean and nasty. Picking on those too weak to fight back is despicable. And one of the effects is that it makes some of the abused eager to hand out abuse on their own, as soon as they are strong enough to get the chance. I am not sure how much impact these systems have on the personalities of  those who go through them. But if they really do “mold men,” they make them more confident of their place, tougher in the face of pain, and more willing to deal pain to others: like good warriors, or football players. How you feel about hazing will have a lot to do with whether you want men to be like that.

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