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Psychoanalysis 3.0

Hazing Is Just Structured Bullying

Why we cherish rituals that let the strong prey on the weak

Posted Aug 05, 2012

By Olga Cheselka, Ph.D.


Consider what recently happened in Rye, NY. On June 1, 2012 three teens from the local high school picked up three younger middle-schoolers. They drove them to the local nature conservancy. The older boys then “paddled” the younger ones using a piece of wood. They caused serious injuries.

But this did not stop there like many such incidents because a high school girl documented the events with her cell phone. Plus, the victims took the step of reporting the incident to the local police. The boys who allegedly performed the beatings were arrested and charged with assault and unlawful imprisonment. The perpetrators said they were participating in a long-standing tradition, a way of initiating younger children to high school; it was nothing more than a hazing ritual.

The response from the community was mixed; some people condemned the boys for using tradition as an excuse, while others urged that all the boys, victims and perpetrators alike, be protected in the name of community preservation. But many in the community just accepted the brutality of this “tradition,” just like in every other community in which hazing does its job of justifying violence.  

How do we understand such hazing and those who just go along with it? I have come to believe an answer can be found by looking closely at how people achieve a sense of security, including how social norms dictate behavior.  

Developing a Sense of Security

People develop a sense of security in two ways: they experience their own power and they experience life being somewhat predictable. Experiencing one’s own power seems simple enough: people feel powerful when they effectively use their strengths and virtues. This can be from having abilities or talents they, or others, value; from making good choices that lead to attaining goals; or even from feeling they can fulfill expectations for what it means to have “the good life.” All of these experiences, and more, can lead to feelings of control and power. 

But trying does not always work. People do not always get what they want. There are inevitably disappointments and frustrations, often because we are in competition with others for realizing our goals. What often ensues is a struggle for who will get what so that those who “win” become dominant. But achieving superior status makes one vulnerable to the threat of losing it. Dominance needs to be constantly shored up. So we end up with hierarchies of power that depend on displays of superiority, including hazing. Hazing gives the hazers a momentary jolt of security, and the hazed the promise that one day they too will get to feel powerful, at least for a moment. 

Predictability also leads to a sense of security. Knowing what happens next helps make people feel safe. All groups have built-in rules and regulations, mores and customs, governing what to do and not do. Staying within the boundaries for acceptable and unacceptable behavior can inspire feelings of confidence and safety. Knowing the social order and where one stands within it also gives a sense of reliability and dependability, which leads to confidence and rootedness. Unfortunately, sometimes these customs, like hazing, are built on rationalizations, primitive underlying fears, and refusals to look at the negative consequences of enduring traditions.

Protecting the Status Quo

Some defend hazing as a harmless rite of passage even when it is violent and abusive. Hazing is accepted and perpetuated for a couple of reasons: it allows for demonstrations of dominance by those who feel they may lose power (those already in superior positions, who may be threatened by younger, more vigorous opponents) and it adheres to a certain set of rules that suggest that order will be maintained (hazing rituals are often very defined and specific).

Furthermore, hazing has become so embedded in our culture that there is a reaction of loss and vulnerability when hazing is opposed—perhaps like the effect this blog post might have on some readers. People overvalue the desire for continuity of the old ways. They see punishing offenders as harming the community at large. The even go so far as to believe the threat to the community’s physical and psychological well-being is not the hazing, but the public exposure of dangerous rituals. For many, the rituals must be kept secret, only revealed to the soon-to-hazed once the episode begins. And if exposed those members of the community who stand to lose status from a public airing of the dirty secrets tend to close ranks. They try to sequester the episode and deal with the issues themselves. In this way the perpetrators are allowed to maintain their elevated positions in the social order.

The Goal of a Powerful Non-Violent Self

So how do we achieve a sense of security without resorting to potentially violent rituals enabling the strong to dominate the weak? There is no question that aggression and competitiveness can play a role in contributing to the welfare of society. However, there are ways to use aggression beneficially. 

We can set up different expectations for each other, and teach our children to utilize and channel their aggression in productive ways. Yes, we need assertiveness, competitiveness, action and drive—all components of aggression. But we can emphasize the expectation that we all should strive to be our best, but not necessarily to be better than others. We can help people see that a robust sense of self does not depend on eclipsing someone else. We can recognize that someone else’s achievement does not necessarily mean our loss. And we can demand that having individual power is not followed by having power over others.

Strength is admirable and necessary, but the use of strategies that distort good values and accomplishments so that power is everything is ultimately harmful and destructive to the health of our society.


About the Author:
Olga Cheselka, Ph.D. is a Training and Supervising Analyst at the William Alanson White Institute, where she teaches in the Postdoctoral Externship Program and the Eating Disorders, Compulsions and Addictions Service. She has a special interest in the issue of development of selfhood in interaction with society and culture. She has a private practice in New York City and Westchester, New York, where she works with adults, couples, and adolescents.

© 2012 Olga Cheselka, All Rights Reserved