November 9, 2013

Hazing: Elite in-fighting, not solidarity building

With the topic of locker room bullying in the headlines, former tight end Cam Cleeland reveals the details of a hazing incident from 1998 when he joined the New Orleans Saints. It started out as a "running the gauntlet" initiation with a pillowcase over his head, but then ended when his teammate Andre Royal walloped him in the face with a sock full of coins, shattering his eye socket and nearly costing him his vision in that eye.

Sounds more like the beginning of a revenge killing than of closer team solidarity.

Yet many commentators, whether they're sports fans or not, feel compelled to defend hazing, pointing to the greater solidarity it builds among those who pass through the initiation rites. A quick reality check points to the opposite conclusion -- that in this sports culture of free agents and widespread shameless showboating, hazing cannot be a solidarity-building rite, but must be another example of "let the Devil take the hindmost" morality.

Normal initiation rites are highly circumscribed in what they do and do not allow to happen. The participants must adhere so rigidly to the formulas that we speak of thoughtless and mechanical processes as "ritualistic." That doesn't mean that the initiates won't suffer pain -- often they do. However, what they'll suffer is predictable from the ritual tradition. Any one of the pain-givers who wanted to escalate would be seen as violating a sacred tradition. This keeps sociopaths in check, and the predictability provides a certain amount of trust on the part of the initiates.

The fixed formulas also ensure that what is happening to the initiates has already been endured by the tormentors themselves, back when they were the grunts. "I had to go through it -- now it's your turn." Fair is fair.

Hazing has neither of these features because it is not a rigidly defined and adhered to set of formulas. What is being suffered by today's grunts was not necessarily suffered by their tormentors back in their time. As a new teammate, Andre Royal didn't have his eye socket smashed in with a sock full of coins. That's something that he cowardly inflicted on another without enduring it himself first.

And hazing is more free-form: those who deviate from the tradition by escalating will not be shamed for violating a tradition that is more sacred and important than their individual fleeting whim. If anything, it sets up a contest among the senior members to see who can push the envelope the most in dealing out pain to the initiates. Which one of us seniors can out-lash the others? And which one of us can come up with the most creative individual performance in lashing the grunts?

Hence, not only does it not build solidarity among the newer group and the established group, it opens up an individualistic status contest even within the senior pain-givers.

A larger reality check over all of American history shows the pattern more tellingly: hazing became more common and more talked-about during periods of widening societal divisiveness, and declined when such divisiveness began to narrow. Here is an excellent overview article by Peter Turchin on the dynamics of inequality in America since its founding. He views the over-production of elites and their consequent intra-elite competition as the driver behind economic inequality and political polarization.

After a quiet period most associated with the Era of Good Feelings circa 1820, inequality began to grow during the mid-19th C, became distressingly wide by the Gilded Age, and only peaked around 1920. From then until the mid-1970s, inequality fell dramatically. And since then, it's been taking off like a rocket again.

Here is a graph showing how common the phrase "hazing" has been in the books in Google's digital library (Ngram):

It lines right up with the inequality dynamics, which are closely tied to intra-elite competition.

Next, see this historical list of hazing-related deaths compiled by people who research these things. Who knows how complete it is, but at least they were ignorant of the historical ideas being put forth here. They too seem to rise and fall in waves. The first one begins in the mid-19th C and peaks in the mid-1910s to early '20s.

There are already proportionally fewer by the second half of the '20s, and none at all listed for the '30s, with only 3 in the '40s. There's a handful in the '50s and only 2 in the '60s. They also tend to be indirect effects of hazing rather than cruelty or humiliation. Most of the small number from the '50s involve getting dropped off far from campus and then getting hit by a car while walking back on the side of the road.

By the mid-'70s, that lull is over, and we enter the wave of hazing that our culture is still in.

Wikipedia has a similar list of milestones in hazing history. Note that during the Gilded Age (1873), the New York Times ran an article titled, "West Point.; "Hazing" at the Academy – An Evil That Should be Entirely Rooted Out." They didn't run an article like that during WWII, which by all of these measures was near a low-point in hazing. We think of that period as being near the height for self-sacrifice and camaraderie in the military, suggesting again that hazing is corrosive to solidarity.

During times of over-production of elites, the established ones fight nastier to hold onto their positions against the aspirants. That is the simplest way to interpret hazing in the broader context -- the entrenched elite struggling to keep out so many would-be usurpers. They shamelessly co-opt the language of preserving tradition and promoting solidarity, while fooling around with the ritual as it pleases them, sowing the seeds of resentment within the group, hiring themselves out like a mercenary rather than a committed lifelong team member, and putting on the most theatrically self-aggrandizing displays for ordinary achievements in their line of work.

Touchdoooown! BOO-ya! In your FACE! SUCK it! Who's the best? Uh-huh, that's me! Uh-huh, that's me! Dance to the right, to the left! To the right, to the left! But not you, you didn't score! Not you, you didn't score! WHEW!!!

Is it any wonder that normal people with healthy minds have become disgusted with the big-time sports culture over the past couple decades? About as uplifting and motivating to watch as a pitbull free-for-all in the black ghetto, or a cockfight in some brown slum.


  1. The 90's movie Dazed and Confused has a pretty balanced take on hazing. It shows how a little humiliation can build solidarity and mark a transition for the middle schoolers into adulthood. On the other hand, the charcters who go overboard on the hazing, played by Parker Posey and Ben Affleck, come off looking pretty badly.

  2. Right, when one of the tormentors is way too into it, pushing the boundaries, etc., then the so-called ritual loses the power of tradition. It's been revealed not to be this uniform thing that everybody is subjected to, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, but the whim of a self-focused power-tripper.

    That uniformity is more important than the severity of the sadism. Some primitive people go through way harsher rites of passage than running the gauntlet with a pillowcase over their head. But it's applied uniformly to all grunts today, and their tormentors suffered the same sadism back in their day.

  3. Thanks for doing a post on this and bringing much needed nuance and understanding. I remember Judith Rich Harris discussed this in "Nurture Assumption" but did not mention that they could be bad in the way you describe.
    I think we all recognize that it strengthens ties, but are left at a loss to understand what's happened when it has gone wrong according to our senses and intuition.
    That graph is powerful.

  4. "It shows how a little humiliation can build solidarity and mark a transition for the middle schoolers into adulthood."

    what a joke, by getting paddled or whatever they do these days? that ushers them into adulthood? compared to Spartan youths, who when coming of age had to live entirely off the land. not exactly the same thing, is it?

    thousands-of-years old cultural rituals are one thing. a bunch of teenagers having a laugh is much different. the hazing practiced commonly in high school is the sadistic variety Agnostic rightly condemns.


  5. here's the clip from Dazed and Confused BTW. seems pretty toxic to me, especially when the lead girl shouts "little Freshmen sluts":

    (BTW, what the heck is with girls getting hazed?)


  6. "much needed nuance and understanding"

    Conservatives have trouble questioning authority, unless they're populist. I think they sense that something is way off with hazing, but are holding their tongue in order to not rock the boat.

    "by getting paddled or whatever they do these days"

    Paddling is fine, as long as it's uniform.

    Did the skater crowd require any kind of dangerous initiation rite when you joined? Like attempting some trick or obstacle that would show you were committed to the skater dude way of life, and not just a hanger-on who wouldn't pay their dues?

  7. "Paddling is fine, as long as it's uniform."

    I will never accept that kind of stuff as being necessary. Its not like it teaches you anything, other than "stay out of our way". The guys who were paddled weren't given privileges or the right to hang out with the older kids. It was more like "I don't like that guy, I can't wait to hurt him." And the only guys who were paddled were those who the older kids had a personal issue with.

    And hazing girls is degenerate.

    "Did the skater crowd require any kind of dangerous initiation rite when you joined? Like attempting some trick or obstacle that would show you were committed to the skater dude way of life, and not just a hanger-on who wouldn't pay their dues?"

    It was just me and my two friends skateboarding around town, occasionally joining up with other kids who lived in town. You didn't have to get good at the tricks, just have a skateboard and keep up with everybody. A lot of times we just talked.



    Uncanny article after having read your analysis, although I'm guessing that the hazing in the 19th century was far worse. This isn't even hazing but seems to be related to the sort of status striving your referring to with individual cadets going overboard much like Royal, particularly since it happened within the confines of another "elite", or at least potentially status striving, institution.

    How do you think it fits in to your analysis, if at all?


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