I SEE THEM running all the time. They're yelling in unison, grimacing and sweating. They aren't having much fun and, in their time off, they complain about all the work they have to put in to make it. But they aren't pledges - they're ROTC cadets.
Under a strict definition, lots of organizations haze. According to the Undergraduate Record, hazing is "any action taken or situation created by a member(s) of a student organization toward one or more organization member or towards prospective members ... that is designed to or produces mental or physical harassment, discomfort, or ridicule." By that definition, athletes who are punished by coaches after a sloppy game and made to perform extra physical exercises are being hazed. So are ROTC cadets who have to do intense physical training and go through their own "Hell Week."
Within the fraternity system, pledging and some hazing can be beneficial. The process teaches humility and respect, and pledges learn a lot about the brotherhood. The bonding experience is unparalleled; the tasks facing a pledge - many of them constructive - force him to forge ties with his brothers. The pledge process emphasizes unity and teamwork in a way that few other things can.
There is a big difference between hazing by physical activity - like push-ups - and by forcing someone to drink alcohol (although both are technically illegal by University standards). Hazing a pledge by forcing him to drink, steal or do other illegal and harmful activities misses the whole point of pledging. Rather than teaching the pledges discipline and respect for the brotherhood, it reinforces stereotypes that plague the fraternity system.
Coercing a pledge into drinking a fifth of alcohol clearly is illegal and harmful, but it also fails to accomplish any of the fraternity's goals for a pledge. It is irrational for brothers of a fraternity to hurt someone whom they have chosen to join their house. It also is irrational for a pledge to want to join an organization that would subject him to harm. In either situation, it does not make sense to force a pledge to do things which will degrade his sense of union with the brothers or which will physically hurt him. Such behavior sets back the pledge process, the individual fraternity and the entire fraternity system, and certainly is deserving of disapproval.
To criticize a fraternity for allowing a pledge to drink at all, however, is both naïve and hypocritical. Many organizations around Grounds have social functions that involve alcohol, and like fraternities, many of them allow underage members to drink.
Why? It's fairly intuitive. If an organization holds a social function, very few people are going to stop their friends from consuming alcohol, especially if they are enjoying it responsibly. To criticize fraternities for allowing underage students to drink, while turning a blind eye toward all the other organizations on Grounds that do likewise, is disingenuous.
For most fraternities, the details of the pledging process remain secret, a fact that is both fortunate and unfortunate. This creates the problem of asymmetric information. The general public only hears or sees the cases in which a pledge ends up in the hospital, while the stories of efficient and constructive pledging are kept within the brotherhood.
Obviously, the former incidents are unacceptable, but they also are not the norm. The public rarely sees any of the support or the brotherhood that a fraternity can provide.
There is a reason that alumni speak so sentimentally about their pledging experience. They enjoyed the companionship and the camaraderie. They are proud of having been a part of their fraternity and of having made it through the pledge process. They are happy with their choices and feel that their decision to pledge a fraternity was a good one.
Calisthenics and sleep deprivation are not the worst things for someone to weather with a group of friends. Fraternity pledges are old enough to make their own decisions and they have chosen to join a fraternity. No doubt they understand the implications; they can continue or, if they do not feel that their time and effort is worth it, they can stop. Pledging itself is not a bad thing; it only becomes so when it is taken too far.
The problems related to hazing are not problems of fraternity life or brotherhood themselves. Few fraternity members would agree that it is a good idea to force pledges to consume large quantities of alcohol. No one wishes to see anyone hurt, certainly not a friend. The responsibility for preventing further such incidents rests squarely with the brothers and presidents of fraternities.
A little hazing in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing, but the abuse and endangerment of others is unacceptable. While we should not rush to condemn the fraternity system and its practices, we should take this opportunity to examine each process and ensure that it is safe.
(Nick Lawler's column appears Wednesdays in The Cavalier Daily. He is a pledge of Sigma Pi fraternity.)