Is it Possible to Defend Hazing?S

Hazing has recently replaced bullying as the longstanding trend of macho assholes getting off by terrorizing others that the media suddenly seems to have discovered, so it was only a matter of time before someone wrote an op-ed defending the practice. That someone is Snowden Wright, a former Dartmouth SAE member — which, thanks to Rolling Stone, is the vilified frat du jour — who writes in the New York Daily News that he doesn't have "the slightest care" if hazing takes place at most schools around the country (and he's certain that it does).

His ode to hazing begins with a description of his pledge brothers sticking their fingers down each other's throats to induce vomiting during a competition to see who could drink the most beer in the shortest amount of time. "It was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen," Wright reminisces, "like watching two kittens lick each other clean." Why would two college students "willingly, gleefully" do that? Because, Wright says, his group of friends treated hazing like "performance art":

We weren't pledges; we were "pledges." It wasn't hazing; it was "hazing."

We took the antics of frat life to such an extreme as to make them camp. At an elite college that costs $50,000 a year, we had voluntarily joined an organization in which we were asked to sit around a basement drinking beer until we vomited, all the while being able to quit at any time. Anything so ridiculous could only be a joke.

The outrageousness of our behavior, in addition to usurping whatever authority the fraternal system might have had, became a part of our education. People go to college not only to get smart but also to be idiots. The latter makes possible the former.

It's insulting to performance artists — and, um, Susan Sontag? — to call hazing performative and "campy," and that's coming from someone who enjoys making fun of performance artists on a regular basis. But we'll unpack that section of his defense in a moment — first, let's note that Wright continually stresses how his hazing, or should we say "hazing," wasn't the bad kind of hazing — there were no vomlets, for starters. He would neeeeever condone the "rare" instances of hazing that go too far, like the recent incident at Boston University that "seems to indicate unlawful violence."

Such occurrences warrant punishment, but they are the exceptions rather than the rule. Fraternities are just containers. If you put cruel, vicious people into them, then cruel, vicious things will happen.

The opposite is also true. I knew many selfless, considerate, decent brothers at SAE. They volunteered for community service. They organized a lecture series. Most importantly, they made sure hazing was kept in check, if not perfectly safe.

Lohse mentions an "anything goes" mentality in fraternities. On the contrary, I found that even the pledge period was a heavily regulated affair. Any conversations about women were no more indelicate than what is said on "Sex and the City." None of the acts involving physical abuse were more preposterous than a typical stunt on an episode of "Fear Factor."

Wright's argument could be summed up in one sentence: hazing is a fun, friendship-cementing, and — most importantly — voluntary experience. But judging from the dozens of stories I've heard from friends who pledged frats in college, it's not that simple. Guys often don't know what they're getting themselves into when they pledge a fraternity, because the brothers don't want to scare potential members away — or implicate themselves in an illegal practice — by openly advertising what really goes on. And once pledges are far enough into the process, it's hard to say no when everyone else is game — the reluctant ones get called "pussies" by guys like Wright who genuinely enjoy, say, induced vomiting. (Can't they just make each other barf on their own time?) There are two basic types of people who join fraternities and sororities: those that want a built-in social network — and/or professional connections later on in life — and those who power-trip by pushing other people down. Wright may have been the former, but he seems like the latter as well.

The guys I know who pledged frats all describe being hazed differently — some sound amused, some sound resigned, and others sound pissed off. I once interned with a douchey SAE frat dude who would regale me with hazing stories during our lunch break: he had eaten vomlet-like concoctions and done chin-up after chin-up, elbows balanced on bottle caps, until he bled, all while guys yelled at him that his girlfriend was a whore. Even he admitted that he looked at his older "brothers" differently after the experience — but that didn't stop him from joining in the year after. On the opposite end of the spectrum, a close friend of mine who felt lonely during his first semester of freshman year pledged a frat known for its silly, nerdy, anti-hazing members. Despite their reputation, the brothers still found a way to harass their pledges: for example, they thought my friend was too full of himself and that his clothes were too tight, so they made him wear XXXL shorts for a week and wear a sign that said, "I probably won't be here for very much longer." Wright would probably consider that frat's initiation rites embarrassingly lightweight, but the "mild" hazing made my friend feel even shittier about himself for having his feelings hurt by guys who were supposed to be his newfound lifelong friends. Quitting would have made the situation even worse.

It's not worth arguing over whether hazing does or doesn't solidify friendships; people bond after going through traumatic ordeals together, and it always makes people feel good to be accepted by those who once treated them like shit. But isn't it possible to make friends without submitting people to a practice that's often embarrassing at best and literally torturous at worst? Not for men like Wright — which is precisely why hazing is still and probably will always be a problem.

Image via Sylvie Bouchard /Shutterstock.