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Alcohol Induced Haze

A news story about two Harvard upperclassmen getting in serious trouble for hazing a fraternity pledge is not, in and of itself, unusual. But the date of that article serves as a reminder that, for as long as there have been fraternities, there has been hazing. Because that news item was published in 1657.

Hazing has been in the news lately. A few weeks ago, Ohio State University canceled all its fraternities’ social and recruiting activities. Texas State University did the same thing a few days earlier, after a student died. Though toxicology reports are still pending, news reports said alcohol “may have been a factor.”

Ohio and Texas State are not alone. There seems to be an epidemic.

OCT. 11, 2017: 10 Arrested in Death of L.S.U. Student After Fraternity Drinking Ritual

NOV. 7, 2017: Florida State Halts Fraternity Activities After Student’s Death

NOV. 10, 2017: Clampdown on University of Michigan Fraternities After Reports of Sexual Misconduct and Alcohol Abuse

And if there is an epidemic of hazing, there is a concomitant epidemic of impotent hand-wringing and weak responses. After a campus tragedy or a looming lawsuit, the university president will invariably issue statements about shock and outrage, make bold assertions about how this will never happen again, and impose discipline on the offending fraternity. And all of this amounts to little more than sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Because it keeps happening. Banished fraternities relocate and reappear. Crackdowns on underage drinking are fleeting and easily circumvented, and young people continue to pledge fraternities and endure hazing rituals that range from humiliating or emotionally scarring, to negligently or actively homicidal.

College presidents are almost always highly intelligent, sophisticated scholars who are adept at solving complex problems. They are not uninformed people, so it stands to reason they are abundantly aware that alcohol is both the greatest risk their students face, the largest contributor to campus sexual assault, and the almost-universally used means of turning benign fraternity pledging into malignant hazing. College presidents also know that two thirds of fraternity members are under 21 and, astonishingly, that four out of five fraternity members are binge drinkers (as compared with 40% of all college students). So it seems that this group of Mensa members could unite, take a stand, and fight against alcohol-related crimes—including hazing—on their campuses.

This is not to say they should eliminate the Greek system altogether. There is a compelling argument to be made for the value of fraternities and sororities. Fellowship, community service, professional networking are just a few of the positives.

There is also an argument to be made for the importance of having a less toxic system for accepting new members and building kinship among those accepted. Many organizations, from country clubs to the Freemasons have their own veiled initiation criteria. But somehow their members manage to feel connected to each other and the history and traditions of the organization without having more senior members vomiting and urinating on them and forcing them to eat food off the floor like dogs, as recently happened with pledges to Pi Alpha Nu at SUNY Plattsburgh during an alcohol-fueled hazing.

There simply are no compelling arguments for tolerating the rampant, dangerous underage drinking that sometimes undergirds hazing rituals. And for that matter, there is no sensible justification for tolerating underage drinking anywhere on college campuses or in off-campus, college-owned real estate.

College is a time of personal growth and experimentation with new ideas, new relationships, new (or newly loosened) rules, and, sometimes, new substances. Kids are prone to take risks and make sub-optimal choices, so the use of drugs and alcohol will likely never vanish altogether.

And that makes it essential for college administrations to provide the oversight, guidance and rule-enforcement that helps prevent their still-maturing students from killing themselves or each other with alcohol or other drugs.

There are high hurdles. College is big business and it’s essential to attract students who will pay full retail tuition. If ASU started to treat alcohol the way BYU does, wealthy families from the chilly Midwest might send their underachieving children to work on their tans and their tolerance to Captain Morgan somewhere other than sunny Tempe.

But meaningful change is overdue. Too many young lives have been snuffed out in a misguided attempt to belong; too many teenagers have been subjected to abuse, degradation, and torture in the name of brotherhood; and too many have died. It has to stop.

Traditionally, colleges have viewed alcohol as an individual problem rather than embracing the idea that the problem might be more environmental in nature. Predictably, environmental problems don’t respond to individual solutions, like asking students to undergo brief online education about drinking. Environmental problems require environmental solutions, like restricting access to cheap alcohol, fostering alternative social opportunities, and actually enforcing the laws about underage consumption.

Colleges were built to educate; to advance our understanding of the world and each other. In addition, they exist to cultivate critical thinking, creativity, and individual self-expression. Fraternities, on the other hand, encourage and cultivate conformity.

Paulo Freire, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed, wrote:

Education either functions as an instrument…to…bring about conformity, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.

If we want our young people to participate in the transformation of their world, then perhaps we should do everything possible to insure that their education does not include people vomiting or urinating on them.

To do otherwise is to risk one day living in a world that’s led by bullies and charismatic despots who appeal to our need for belonging, while demanding obedience and blind loyalty in return.

Categories: Commentary

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