When Initiation Rituals Become Dangerous
Posted Dec 30, 2011
Hazing is an initiation practice, most common among young people, in which members of a group--such as a fraternity, military unit or sports teams--force newcomers to do unpleasant, humiliating or dangerous activities as a prerequisite to becoming a full-fledged member of the group. Although hazing is generally applied equally to every initiate, it can merge into bullying, in which special abuse is directed at certain individuals. At one time hazing was seen as harmless fun and was at least tacitly tolerated by adults--such as college presidents, military officers or team coaches--who possessed the power to end, or severely limit, the practice. Tolerance of hazing has declined, however, as a result of publicity and lawsuits (civil and criminal) resulting from incidents in which individuals were killed or maimed, such as through beating or coerced alcohol consumption. In spite of the fact that hazing is now banned in many institutions, and violent hazing is now a felony in many jurisdictions, notorious instances of abusive hazing still do occur.
Two tragic cases both became public towards the end of 2011: (a) the beating death of a marching band member, Robert Champion, at Florida A&M University, apparently as the result of a hazing ritual, and (b) the suicide in a U.S. army base in Afghanistan of Private Danny Chen, apparently just after he had been severely humiliated by hazing from members of his unit. In both of these cases, as in most other severe hazing episodes, the action can be seen as foolish, in that the perpetrators seemed unaware of the dangers their activity posed, both to the victims (who were grievously harmed) and to themselves (some of whom are facing serious jail time). As a little more is known today about the Robert Champion case, and also because Danny Chen's case appears to be more a matter of group punishment (he was allegedly targeted for some performance lapses and also for personal characteristics, including his ethnicity) rather than a rite of passage ritual, my analytic comments will be reserved mainly for the college marching band case.
Florida A&M University (FAMU) is what is referred to as a "historically black college and university," or HBCU, and, like several other HBCU's has a celebrated marching band which performs at half-time of the school's football games and on other occasions. FAMU's band, referred to as "The Marching 100" (it actually has over 300 members), is probably the most famous of these bands, as reflected in the fact that it was invited to France in 1989 to represent America in the festivities marking the centennial of the French Revolution. The Marching 100 is the model for many other such bands, and one of the things that they modeled was a culture of violent hazing. As reported in a 2010 piece by journalist Frank Deford in Sports Illustrated, "new band members -- called ‘crabs' -- had to face choreographed assaults, with two-by-fours, belts, baseball bats, beer bottles, suffering literally hundreds of blows from their older compatriots.... The victims also admitted, grievously, that they succumbed to a horrible psychological turnabout, because as painfully injured as they'd been when they were beaten, they themselves willingly became the twisted assailants the next year." Usually, hazing does not result in serious injury or death, but predictably it sometimes does.
At first glance, the Champion hazing tragedy seems a little atypical, as he was an older student in his mid-twenties (he had earlier dropped out of school for financial reasons) and thus was not a new band member. However, there is an initiation rite aspect to the story, in that Champion had applied to ride on Bus C, the percussion vehicle that held the highest status among band members. As part of the process for being accepted on Bus C, a student had to run the gauntlet from the front to the rear of the bus, being beaten along the way by the occupants. This apparently is what happened to Champion, during which he suffered internal bleeding that caused him to collapse and go into fatal shock. Less than a month before Robert Champion was killed, a female freshman FAMU band member named Bria Hunter suffered a broken femur and blood clots after being beaten by three band members. Such extreme cases are not a new thing at FAMU, however. For example, in 2001, a FAMU band member named Marcus Parker suffered severe kidney damage after being beaten hundreds of times with a paddle.
As a result of the Champion and Hunter beatings, the Marching 100 has been suspended and there are serious calls for it to be disbanded. The state of Georgia (where Champion and Hunter were from) has suspended marching bands at over 20 high schools, because of fear that a culture of violent hazing was developing within those organizations. Renewed attention is being paid nationally to the problem of violent hazing in college marching bands, a problem that seems to be localized mainly in HBCU's, the vast majority of which are located in Southern states. Scholars, most of them African-American, have made efforts to understand why this culture of violent hazing arose and persists. One interesting theory espoused by Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Arkansas, is that it is an offshoot of a 1990 collective decision by college presidents to end pledging (which always involved hazing) at HBCU fraternities. Because opportunities for hazing in HBCU's suddenly became limited, they resurfaced in marching bands, which have many of the features of fraternities but which to some extent are freer from supervision and discipline by adults such as leaders of national organizations (which will suspend or terminate fraternity chapters where abusive hazing is tolerated).
In terms of my four-factor theory of foolish behavior, the most powerful explanation for what happened to Robert Champion is "Situation". Two situational aspects, in particular, seem especially relevant: (a) the fact that members-including the victims-enter into the group knowing that hazing will occur and accepting it as a legitimate price to pay, and (b) the fact that the practice occurs in secret, free from scrutiny by the outside world of adults except, of course, when something goes seriously wrong. There is a process of groupthink occurring here, in which an otherwise deviant act (assaulting someone with fists or objects) is defined by the collectivity as non-deviant and even valued. In such a case, individual conscience and judgment tends to fly out the window, and members of the group allow the behavior of others to guide their own actions. It takes a certain degree of courage to withstand such pressure, and few people possess that courage, especially given that the likely price of taking a stand is ostracism or expulsion.
Here it is necessary to make a somewhat sensitive point having to do with the partial complicity which victims of hazing play in their own victimization. It is difficult to imagine that anyone who joined the FAMU marching band was unaware that they would be hazed, both because such hazing was well-known on campus, but also because many of the members came from high school marching bands which emulated the practices of the famous HBCU bands. Certainly, Robert Champion must have known beforehand that he would have to run the gauntlet of Bus C before being allowed to ride on that high-status vehicle. He did not seem to feel oppressed by such practices (according to his parents, he was very happy with the band experience) or to consider saying "no, do not assault me, unless you are prepared to spend a year or more in jail." The willingness of most members to be assaulted (although, obviously, not to end up near death) made it, of course, much easier to carry out these heinous practices. Thus, a major engine that drove the whole sick process was the strong motivation of members to participate in the band, a topic covered more fully under "Affect/ State" below.
"Cognition" enters into foolish hazing, as in most foolish behaviors, in that the perpetrators of the hazing did not seem to understand the real risks involved, both to the physical well-being (death, injury) of the victims and to the social well-being (freedom, money, and future) of themselves. One reason they did not understand these risks is because of what might be termed the "base-rate" phenomenon. Simply put, when a practice can go on for years without anything catastrophic occurring, there is a tendency to minimize risks and assume that nothing bad can happen, especially to the perpetrators. The only thing that might have countered this false belief is if the college administrators (both President and band director, working closely with law enforcement) had worked hard at getting commitments from band members to avoid hazing and to report (and then prosecute) offenders, but this apparently never happened in any meaningful way. A major contributor to the Cognition factor is the young age of most of the band members. Presumably, older age brings enhanced wisdom to understand the dangerous (not to mention morally abhorrent) nature of violent-or any-hazing. Unfortunately, band members still in, or barely out of, their teens, mostly lack that experience and wisdom.
The third explanatory factor, "Personality," is difficult to apply to a collectivity such as a band, given that in an organization of 300 members, one will likely find some who opposed hazing and resisted participating, a majority who went along with it half-heartedly, and a large minority who embraced it totally. This more enthusiastic sub-group, whom I shall dub the "brutes," likely play a leadership role in organizing and carrying out the hazing assaults, and also tend to do it with greater force and viciousness. Thus, if Robert Champion was struck by say 20 band members on the bus, I would guess that five barely touched him, ten used some force but were careful not to hurt him too badly, while the five remaining members struck him as hard and often as they could. It is likely that the fatal injuries were caused by these more violent individuals. As the details come more fully to light I would expect to learn that one or more of the brutes has a history of violence, including involvement with the mental health and criminal justice systems. One of the distressing things about hazing is that a few disturbed individuals are using the cover of a collective activity to express their need to abuse others and to do it with relative impunity. Thus, the most maladapted members of the group are using a bogus rationale (that hazing builds group coherence) to give vent to their sadistic tendencies. That seems to have been true in the coerced suicide of Army Private Danny Chen, as one of the ringleaders of his brutal assault is a man who had spent time in prison for domestic violence.
The fourth factor in my explanatory model, "Affect/ State," is an important contributor to violent hazing, less in the excitement that perpetrators feel when they are hurting others, as in the fear that victims feel when they consider the consequences of reusing to participate. Becoming a member of the Marching 100, and of comparable other HBCU ensembles, is a tremendously prestigious accomplishment and one which some members (such as, apparently, Robert Champion) dream about from childhood on. The strong motivational drive to participate in these bands is the engine that drives acceptance of hazing, given that hazing is seen as a necessary prelude to becoming a member. I suspect that hazing will stop once it becomes clear that: (a) hazing is no longer necessary to achieve band membership, and (b) hazing in fact will prevent you from achieving that end. For both of these things to happen, it is necessary for mature adults to step in and end this "Lord of the Flies" drama, in which unchecked adolescents brutalize each other without reason or compassion.
Copyright Stephen Greenspan