Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Hazing: Not Just For Greeks

Several days ago, I read this article about the first day for new cadets at the Air Force Academy after one of my friends from high school, himself entering his final year at AFA, posted it on Facebook. The article is written by a reporter for the geeky site, which is not a major news source, but a significant internet site nonetheless.

What Happens at AFA

After being treated to a nice welcome ceremony with their families, new cadets are separated from their families and loaded onto buses which take them to a different part of the compound. Here a few passages about what follows:
Onboard, the basic cadets looked tight and nervous. One of the more senior cadets had gotten on behind them and immediately began barking out commands to quickly find a seat. He leaned over to me at one point and whispered that "it's about to get loud." And then, without warning to the basic cadets, he began screaming out commands, telling them exactly where to hold their hands, not to speak unless spoken to, that they must recite the seven basic--and only--responses to questions they were now allowed and more.

With that, the doors opened, and the veteran cadets screamed some more, now ordering the newbies off the bus at an even higher volume than before.

The freshmen grabbed their gear and hustled off the bus. They ran to where a cluster of blue-uniformed cadets were waiting in front of a large mat emblazoned with footprints for them to stand on.

A fresh veteran cadet stood in front of the group of newbies and shouted out his commands. That they were to keep their feet each at a 22.5 degree angle from their head, meaning that their feet would be open at a 45 degree angle; that their hands should be held, cupped, at their sides, with their thumbs even with the seams of their pants. And then he ordered his cadre of veteran cadets to "correct" any mistakes they saw in how the new cadets were standing.

This, of course, was their excuse to loudly, energetically, and enthusiastically rush around and berate the newcomers. One by one, it seemed, they would be singled out and screamed at for this or that mistake (see video below). I could tell the veteran cadets were enjoying this, finally their opportunity to shift forward their revenge for when this happened to them two years ago.

It went on for a while, and then, finally and mercifully, it stopped, and the new cadets were ordered to grab their gear and head off up a ramp to begin the next rounds of processing.
What surprises me most is not that this type of hazing occurs, but that the CNET author (David Terdiman) maintains a tone of such ambivalence throughout this event. He even decides to commemorate the occassion by taking video and a few snapshots.

I know that what happens on move-in day at AFA is not particularly bad, and really shouldn't surprise us given what we know about discipline models at the service academies. However, when I read this, I immediately think of connections between this and hazing within the Greek system.

(Side note: The friend from my high school class who went to AFA is one of the greatest people I've met and I am in no way trying to impugn the Air Force or the military. I'm sure he would never perpetuate any activity about which we as Americans would not be proud.)

The Line-Up

What this article details is extremely similar to one of the most common forms of fraternity hazing: the line-up. Every house does this differently, but it generally involves having the entire new member ("pledge") class line up for review in front of the brotherhood. New members are usually forced to stay in line for a long period of time, while the brotherhood yells at them, asks them questions about the fraternity, and in some documented cases of hazing, hits them or throws things at them.

The line-up has been at the center of some hazing cases at Cornell. Here is part of the Daily Sun's article about a hazing incident which occurred during my freshman year:
The incident, which took place on the evening of Feb. 23, began when the pledges of Lambda Theta Phi organized themselves in what is known as battle position — hugging each other in a line and squatting. Fraternity brothers than charged at the pledges. In his voluntary statement, a Cornell student and Lambda Theta Phi pledge related that he was removed from the group by Eric Perez, a student at LeMoyne College, and smashed into a sheet rock wall which shattered on impact.
There is also a description of a line-up in the 2004 paper Hazed and Confused (.pdf), which fills 71 pages with anecdotes about the process of pledging a fraternity at Cornell:
Once we reached the house we would have to file down to the basement and take our assigned place in one of two nine person wide, parallel lines, hence the name line up. These infamous lines would shrink and be restructured over time to 6 or 7 man lines not because of any ingenuity on the part of the frat brothers, but rather the glaring awkwardness of not accounting for the fact that our lines were becoming riddled with holes from “pansies” de-pledging.

Once a pledge took his place in line he was not aloud to make eye contact or communicate with any one of his pledge brothers. Line ups would not have been complete without a “pledge educator” also known as brother Russell and every four letter word imaginable when behind tightly closed doors. He frequently led line-ups, which meant leading hazing activities and traumatizing pledges for the entertainment of his frat brothers. Typically he would deride one or all of us, humiliating us with physical actions and/or carefully chosen words while a group of ten to twenty brothers sat around the basement with a six pack of beer or a joint, laughing hysterically and often throwing rotten eggs or insults our way to supplement the experience.
We can draw many similarities between Greek and Air Force pledging. The CNET article notes that, "I could tell the veteran cadets were enjoying this, finally their opportunity to shift forward their revenge for when this happened to them two years ago." This cycle of hazing, in which those who are hazed look forward to having the opportunity to do the same to others, is primarily responsible for perpetuating hazing within the Greek system. Having gone through the same thing, oneself, serves to both legitimize and perpetuate hazing rituals in the mind of the offender.

The purpose of any hazing ritual, if we were to interview those who haze, is to train new members into what is expected of them as members of an organization while also bringing the new member class closer together. In the case of the AFA, what better way to bring together a group of cadets from all 50 states than by putting them through a shared experience of misery?

Is Military Hazing Different?

Some would argue that we should have a different standard for the service academies and the armed forces in general. Sun columnist Munier Salem argued last year that we should accept hazing within the ROTC program, but doubts whether such a program is appropriate for Cornell:
Unity of purpose, strict hierarchies, and “team building” via hazing are all necessary for an effective fighting machine. Doubt is the worst enemy of a well run military. If a soldier is encouraged to doubt his commanding officer, the effective fighting force would quickly dissolve. What I am criticizing is the idea that all this belongs on a college campus.
But even thought the hazing outlined in the CNET article isn't particularly bad, it seems like it's just the tip of the iceberg. The Air Force Academy has been at the center of various scandals and allegations involving hazing:
Ten years after Saum's [rape] case began, the academy is deep in a still-unfolding rape scandal. The charges Saum made about Air Force indifference to crimes at its elite training academy have been picked up by senators, congressmen and dozens of current and former female cadets who are calling for accountability and reform at the academy.

The Air Force itself acknowledges problems, saying at least 56 allegations of sexual assault have been made at the academy during the decade since Saum's complaint.
In an interview with Salon magazine, one military historian speculated that some of the hazing and abuse rituals at the service academies are responsible for the military's treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and our use of torture elsewhere. She details one case:
In Colorado Springs, at the Air Force Academy -- and this did reach the light of day and it was discontinued -- one guy would tightly hold an apple in his rear end and another guy had to eat the apple out of his rear end.
In response to some of these issues, the AFA has tried to rebrand itself while eliminating some of the worst hazing (Tom Roeder, "Class of Change," The Gazette (Colo. Springs), May 29, 2007):
After the sexual assault claims, the academy superintendent and commandant of cadets were replaced. New leaders were handed 165 directives -- an "Agenda for Change" -- to improve the school months before the class of '07 arrived.

"We sort of came in as it started," said senior cadet John Davis. "We haven't known anything but change."

The directives killed the "Bring Me Men" sign and replaced it with a list of "core values." Yelling during basic training was banned. Cadets were separated by gender during training. Hazing rites, including the "recognition" tradition that was in essence "hell week" for freshmen, were outlawed.
Note the bolded line, and think back to the CNET article.

More likely, just as hazing has become entrenched within the rituals of many fraternities and sororities at Cornell, so has it become an accepted part of life at the AFA.

How else can we explain this remarkable passage in a Massachusetts paper about a local cadet who entered AFA a couple of years ago? (Staasi Heropoulos, "Longmeadow Grad Heads For Academy," The Republican (Springfield, Mass.), July 11, 2007)
Auerbach's first year at the academy will be difficult. He and other incoming cadets will endure scorn, abuse and ridicule from upperclassmen and women.

From cleaning his room and polishing his shoes to studying and walking across campus, he'll be told what, when and how to do everything. He will be "ripped on and yelled at" for the entire year.

"It's more for discipline. Before you can be a leader you have to be a follower. They just want to make that point," said Auerbach.

"It's definitely going to be tough, but thousands of people have gone through it before me and they will go through it after me. I want to be there. It's not going to be fun but I'll just have to laugh off the hazing."
This is the same attitude that many new members bring to the fraternity pledging process. They know there might be some hazing and some activities they won't enjoy, but they still join the fraternity because they know the organization stands for something more.

Conclusion: A Double Standard

Here is the point I'm trying to make: If what happens on Day One at the Air Force Academy was observed by a Cornell administrator at a fraternity pledging event, the fraternity would face strong sanctions and its student leaders would face an investigation into their entire new member program. The ensuing report describing the violations would have a tone much different from that of the CNET article.

The reason why such hazing is smiled at in Colorado Springs, yet fought in Ithaca, is that there is a double standard at play. Observers see older cadets yelling at younger cadets in broad daylight, and hear stories of sexual abuse and worse things happening behind closed doors, and dismiss it as part of a necessary process to turn young men and women into military officers who embrace the discipline and hierarchy of our armed forces. After all, joining the military was never supposed to be a fun experience.

The same observers might see fraternity pledges walking to class in funny costumes, or running with their pledge class at early hours of the morning. They might also hear of things like line-ups and much worse rituals which occur behind closed doors. These observers are appalled that such things could happen and question the legitimacy of a system which allows these events to occur.

Dangerous and offensive hazing is never acceptable. It is never right to harm someone physically, or discriminate based on race or sexual orientation, or engage in any sort of torture. But some of the things which our society define as hazing can serve acceptable purposes, both for the military and for Greeks. If our society believes that the hazing at AFA is necessary to establish a sense of order and discipline among the cadets, then we should also recognize that a difficult pledge process can serve to bring a pledge class closer together, help them to better know the brotherhood and its history, and provide them with a sense of accomplishment at the end of the process.

One of the most memorable things I've heard from a Cornell administrator was this: "An activity is considered hazing unless the brothers have to do the same thing as the new members." In our quest to eradicate the ugly forms of hazing from the Greek system, we should not get carried away with eliminating difficult parts of the pledge process which serve legitimate purposes. In our society, the fraternity does not carry the same significance, importance, or respect that the Air Force possesses, but this does not mean that a double standard is acceptable for evaluating what happens to new members. Not everything the Air Force does is good, and not everything the fraternity does is bad. To move forward, this must be our starting point.

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