Rites of Passage Ceremonies, Initiation And Hazing – How And Why Did Something So Traditional Become So Often Criminal And Psychologically Damaging Acts

At a recent rural medicine conference I attended a few weeks ago, there was an interesting session on initiation practices in rural communities, and how doctors can optimally assist with attenuating the possibility of clinical consequences associated with them. I have been in discussion with the (great) senior management team of my current University regarding concerns I have about initiation ceremonies in the hostels and how they impact on the medical students we train, and how we can prevent them. I waved goodbye to my ten year old son last week when went off on his first night away from home on an official trip with his school class to a campsite, and felt a huge feeling of fear and concern for him that there would be the possibility of hazing occurring during it, and was relieved to hear afterwards that it was all great fun and well organized by the top-notch school he attends. All of these got me thinking about rites of passage, initiation ceremonies, and the horrific practice of hazing, which is astonishingly still ubiquitous whenever social groups form in any community, be they sports teams, gangs, military units, university residences, or school, amongst many others.

Initiation ceremonies have been present in societies since time immemorial, and are defined as a rite of passage marking entry into and acceptance into a group or society, or as a formal method of marking a transition into adulthood. Initiation ceremonies can be fairly informal – for example at the University I graduated as a medical doctor, a bagpiper traditionally ‘piped’ in the results that we had passed our exams, and a celebratory party occurred afterwards. When sailors or passengers on boats pass over the equator for their first time, they are given an initiation ceremony that welcomes them into the naval / sailing ‘community’ by doing so. They can also be very formal, such as occurs with the Christian Baptism, Jewish Bar Mitzvah or Tribal Manhood ceremonies.

Hazing, in contrast, is the contemporary definition of ‘organized bullying’ associated with initiation practices, and is defined as the practice of rituals and other activities involving harassment, abuse or humiliation used as a way of initiating a person into a group. Hazing practices include: i) relatively (though to me awful anyway) ‘benign’ activities such as forcing initiates to march in line, perform long road trips, participate in physical activity, perform periods of silence or personal servitude to senior group members; ii) relatively ‘malignant’ activities such as the forced consumption of food or drink (including alcohol) or other noxious substances, acts of humiliation and degradation such as streaking or wearing humiliating apparel, or restrictions on eating and bathing, amongst others; and iii) frankly criminal activities such as branding, paddling, beating, or whipping – ie physical abuse – or forced sexual activity and abuse. Despite hazing being almost completely banned across the world, it is interesting to note that it is still extremely prevalent, with for example approximately one quarter of students in the USA acknowledging that they had been the victims of hazing, and a number of deaths reported each year caused specifically by hazing practices.

The reasons why folk agree to, or submit to, hazing practices when joining a university residence, or starting military training, or joining a sports team, are complex and still not well understood, as is indeed why ritual initiation practices are required in any shape or form. The classical reason for their occurrence is the team-building one, and that initiation practices, particularly those associated with hazing, create team identity and group cohesion by uniting folk undergoing hazing by the adversity associated with the process, and by successfully completing the ordeal imposed on them. In this theory, hazing causes firstly a separation phase, which removes the initiate from their previous social group due to the trials they go through challenging their old identity enough in order for them to ‘open up’ to change; then a transition phase, in which the initiate goes through the challenges and psychologically ‘fragments’ during the process; and finally the incorporation phase, when after completing the tasks, the initiate has a new identity which is synchronous / part of the group controlling the initiation process. But, a recent great study by Liesbeth Mann and colleagues has shown that the use of hazing, particularly when it targets individuals as compared to groups of initiates at one time, has a negative effect both on team function and identity, with most folk who go through such humiliating hazing practices feeling less, rather than more affiliation both to fellow initiates and the group that imposes them, even if they do not overtly ‘show’ this negative perception to the group. Even the military, which has long used hazing practices as team-building practice, has realized that hazing does not increase ‘esprit du corps’, and is working on alternate, less abusive methods of doing so.

So why do folk who join a new residence at a University, or sports team, submit to the process of hazing, rather than refusing to participate and reporting such practice immediately it happens. Perhaps most importantly, most young adults and adolescents feel the need to ‘belong’, and if hazing is the price to ‘pay’ to belong to a particular group, they will go through it – even if, for example when signing up for a residence at a University, hazing would not be expected to be an organized part of induction. Most folk of all ages have a strong drive for connection and self-preservation, and these ‘drives’ may contribute to an acceptance of hazing by those undergoing it. Conformity and obedience to authority may also be part of the reason – most folk submit to authority, and perceive that if senior / older folk are telling them to do something, it must associated with acceptable authority. There is also thought to be a fear of retribution and alienation associated with refusing to participate in such rituals, and the concept of the ‘silence’, where those folk who do complain are not supported with their complaint by other group victims of hazing, or by anyone in the group doing the hazing. Indeed, from a fraternity or sport team perspective, it may be the case that those that the complaints are taken too, such as residence heads or coaches, were previously part of the same fraternity or sports team, and turn a ‘blind eye’ or actively encourage such hazing behaviour, and ‘fob off’ those that complain, which is obviously devastating to those that do so. There is also the concept of cognitive dissonance that is posited as a reason why folks allow themselves to submit to hazing – they are aware that such behaviour is abusive and degrading, but in order to cope, ‘downplay’ the negative aspects of the hazing process they are undergoing by rationalizing that it is ‘not too bad’ or ‘good for team-building’, and thereby cope with something that is perceived to be unacceptable to them.

If it is hard to understand why folk accept the process of hazing happening to them, it is even harder to understand why folk involve themselves in organizing hazing or are part of groups that haze younger initiates. Some individuals who haze initiates surely have personality disorders such as sociopathy, and take pleasure from humiliating and / or abusing others. There is also the concept of abuse ‘cycles’, where folk who have been hazed in the past themselves, are at a greater risk of hazing others because of a misplaced desire for revenge – if the ‘system’ where the hazing takes place is perceived to be ‘too big’ to challenge, then some folk will ‘take it out’ on future initiates to ‘make up’ for what they suffered. There is also the concept of ‘groupthink’, which is defined as a process in groups where faulty decision making occurs as a results of the group dynamics, including pressure for unanimity and conformity, suppression of moral objections, and degradation of ‘outsiders’, which is what initiates would be perceived as being until they have gone through the rite of passage defined as being required by the group as necessary in order to be part of the group. So ‘groupthink’ would result in the condoning of hazing practice, though it is not clear if each person individually feels similar to the ‘group’ when alone as compared to when in the group environment. It is also suggested that those in groups involved in hazing initiates may do so due to fear of reprisal for not doing so, or a perceived lack of alternatives available to the hazing process for incorporating new folk into their ‘group’, whatever their group is.

The question arises why something so barbaric still is so ubiquitous, and what can be done to ‘stamp it out’. There is clearly something seemingly innate in most folk that leads them to believe that some ‘rite of passage’ is needed as part of the transition periods of life, particularly adolescence into adulthood, and is needed to ‘cement’ one’s place in a group, and indeed potentially create group dynamics. But clearly hazing is more than a ‘step too far’, and needs more active management than what appears to be the case up to this point in time in order to eradicate it. Researchers, law officials and leaders are beginning to realize that there needs to be a three-pronged approach to dealing with the problem of hazing. The first is that it needs to be absolutely spelt out that not only is hazing ‘not nice’ and not appropriate, but it is categorically illegal / criminal activity, and folk who organize hazing practice should be punished to levels commensurate with what type of hazing is performed, even if this is a custodial sentence. In other words, universities and sports teams (and indeed any group activity where hazing is a problem) need to work with law enforcement folk to be sure their codes of conduct and disciplinary procedures are not just ‘in house’ but carry the full weight of the law behind them – and those in positions of authority in any environment who support hazing need to be ‘rooted out’ by senior management / law enforcement folk. Second, there needs to be credible alternatives created to hazing, that are positive rather than damaging, and that allow a rite of passage to occur in new initiates that is pleasant rather than damaging, and these alternatives need to be articulated and encouraged by senior management of whatever institution is afflicted by hazing practices. Thirdly, there needs to be a strong marketing and external communication campaign that clearly states that hazing is unacceptable, and people can speak up about their concerns regarding hazing, and can refuse to participate in any ritual initiation ceremony, whether it includes hazing or not, without fear of prejudice or retribution. Until these actions are taken, hazing will continue unabated as routine, history and tradition work to keep on taking it forward. We need mentors rather than thugs inducting our youth, encouragement rather than humiliation, and welcome rather than aggression masquerading as ‘play’.

I have got to the age in my life when I try and see the ‘middle path’ in most debates and issues, and try and always be pragmatic in controversial debate, but there is no doubt that the issue of hazing fills me with a feeling of horror and a sensation of nausea when thinking about it (and indeed writing about it now) which is visceral and extreme (for the record I don’t have any memory of any hazing episodes in my past that would induce such feelings directly), and probably most folk reading this would think and feel similar. I simply cannot understand how anyone can force someone else to engage in practices that are humiliating to them for any reason whatsoever, let alone as part of some group initiation practice. What is in the mind of someone who forces someone else (usually younger or ‘weaker’) to drink urine, or eat faeces, or who as a group whips people as they run past, or worse – it is something that to me that almost defies belief, despite writing about the potential causes of hazing in a rational manner above. Who benefits from forcing first year students to wear strange uniforms on campus in their first year? Who benefits from hitting a new sports team member on their backside with a bat? Who benefits from making someone grovel in front of them or be their ‘servant’ for a year, and at a place of higher learning as it so often does, of all places? I didn’t sign up for such things when I went to School or University, or played competitive sport in my youth, and I don’t think many folk do. Hazing really has no place in modern, or any society, and I fervently hope my children are not exposed to it in their lifetimes when they go through their own ‘rite of passage’ from adolescence to young adults. As much as there is a sociopathic ‘groupthink’ that perhaps lies behind the causation of hazing, perhaps those of us who feel nausea at the thought of it can create a more positive ‘groupthink’ of our own, and work to get it eradicated, or replaced by something which perhaps better incorporates the ‘old’ virtues associated with rite of passage ceremonies, such as mentorship, welcome, and celebration – if they indeed ever existed in the initiation practices of times and traditions past!


About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Deputy Dean (Research), Faculty of Science and Health, University of Essex, Colchester, United Kingdom View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

2 responses to “Rites of Passage Ceremonies, Initiation And Hazing – How And Why Did Something So Traditional Become So Often Criminal And Psychologically Damaging Acts

  • stopthephaze

    Great post, very interesting. You brought up perspectives that I would have never thought of. I agree that we need to work together as on to get hazing eradicated – and I think that this begins with educating people and raising awareness. That way, the more people who know how deadly this issue is, the more people who will join us in stopping hazing!
    Check out my blog for more!

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