“Didn’t the hazing already happen a few weeks ago, when the freshmen came on campus?”
I heard this while tabling for Hazing Prevention Week. At first, I was only bothered by a peer’s blasé attitude toward something I’m strongly against. But then, I became increasingly troubled—and for a different reason. The flippant remark demonstrated a lack of understanding and concern about a problem whose consequences range most “tamely” from humiliation and discomfort to, in the extreme, psychological trauma or death.
And it’s easy to pretend that you don’t have to worry about it, because inaccurately characterizing hazing as the practice of only certain groups, such as athletic or Greek organizations, has become comfortable. Because of this, hazing as threat to a community goes largely unacknowledged. Too rarely is the paradox of building a group by causing physical or emotional distress for its members recognized. Too often is the gap between respecting human dignity in public and utterly disregarding it behind closed doors disregarded.
More explicitly: I think hazing is a problem, and it happens across Columbia’s campus regardless of whether it is discussed openly. It’s time to start an informed dialogue about the way we interact, what we’re willing to endure in our interactions, and how it’s gotten this far.
Why do I think it’s happening at Columbia? Simply put: lack of information, an inability or unwillingness to dialogue, and deep-seated desires for validation and power. The reasons often given for hazing—building community, educating members—have helped silence conversations, aided by our ignorance as to what hazing actually is. Hazy definitions and misconceptions about the occurrences, victims, and impact of hazing keep us largely uninformed.
Happening in secret, it avoids the scrutiny to which most other aspects of our lives are subjected. Too few conversations address the issue of what groups are forced or “highly encouraged” to do. Why not air out this specific dirty laundry, if airing it is supposedly beneficial? I think in this high-achieving, type-A culture (as it is so often characterized), disturbing challenges might appeal to some as opportunities to justify membership in organizations to themselves and others and to assert power over others. Validation and power have an attractiveness that cannot be denied, especially when we understand our peers to be overwhelmingly successful.
Many have bought into the myth that the perceived benefits of hazing are worth its costs. They aren’t. Hazing should be prevented because no perceived benefit is worth our senses of agency, well-being, and self-worth. It is an affront to human dignity, and it should not be tolerated in our community for the same reasons that bigotry, violence, and other perversions of positive human interaction aren’t.
These behaviors instill feelings of worthlessness and powerlessness, and they are mechanisms that allow individuals and groups to be manipulated into performing actions that harm themselves and others. The feelings of unwelcomeness and threats of harm that result from hazing have long-lasting impacts, just as in incidences of bias and violence, sexual or otherwise. They are cancerous, able to destroy communities from inside by corrupting with violence, coercion, and debasement of the foundations of relationships.
But not everything is hazing. Education and challenges on the path to personal development and relationship-building have merit. Where do we draw the line? In my mind, this process breaks down when the manner in which we challenge one another doesn’t relate to our end goals or results in inconsistent, unrealistic, or dangerous expectations of each other. It breaks down when the intention of a challenge isn’t solely to provide skills and experiences, but also to subordinate and degrade.
We all share a stake in preventing hazing. Having conversations about our experiences is the first step toward building a community that truly values its members. Maybe you’ve never been subjected to hazing. Maybe you weren’t so lucky. Maybe you’re now questioning things you’ve participated in or witnessed.
We’re at different points in the conversation, but it’s necessary to create a stronger community built not on fear, harm, or humiliation, but on genuinely positive interactions. We want the unity, sense of belonging, and tradition that often justify hazing, but can’t we achieve these through different means? Better means? Not by compromising the physical, emotional, and psychological well-being of our friends? Why is even a little humiliation, an ounce of harm, the hint of a psychological trigger acceptable for our friends to endure—especially at our own hands?
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in philosophy and in astrophysics. She is a member of the Hazing Prevention Task Force.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact email@example.com.