So We Belong

Why do we like hazing?

It's going to be that time soon.

Rumors abound. Sometimes you are given a key to a secret door, or asked to sign a book based on political affiliation, or blindfolded.

Sometimes the rumors are worse: You don’t sleep for a week and you’re forced to wear stupid clothing. Or you serve older members at events. Or you ridicule yourself and each other.

And worse still: Who has burned a dollar bill in front of a homeless person? Who has pretended to hawk Spare Change News? Who was concussed and prevented from going to the hospital? Who has been sexually assaulted?

I’m talking about initiations. Here’s how they work. All semester, we go through a comp, or a punch, or a rush—a process of competition, selection, and training for one of many exclusive organizations on campus. Sometimes, these processes are educational and fun. Sometimes, they entail a certain level of dickishness, calculated to make applicants feel small. But almost unanimously, these processes rely on hierarchical divisions between members and compers, inside and out.


If and when we get on, we are initiated, and the hierarchy is leveled. During a climactic evening or day or week—often chemically-altered, often somewhat mysterious—we participate in rituals of belonging. Sometimes these rituals are silly and fun: We go on scavenger hunts and dance to Beyoncé.

Sometimes, shit gets weirder.

The line between initiation and hazing is pretty, well, hazy. Massachusetts state law defines hazing as any activity that  “willfully or recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of any student or other person.”

Think now of your organization’s practices. Maybe they fit the definition of hazing. Maybe they don’t. Maybe you have some nagging doubts.

I have some nagging doubts, too.

Don’t get me wrong: When I was comping, I was all about initiations. I craved the dark room, the booze, the weird sexual questions. I woke up the next morning, and I belonged.

In a social scene that can so often be exclusionary, that’s an incredible feeling.

But belonging predicated on hierarchy, belonging at the cost of our dignity, at the cost of our self-respect and our respect for other people, at the cost of our comfort and our safety—that’s not belonging at all.

“It’s about creating an alternative imaginative space,” a friend of mine said one night as we talked about initiations. “You imagine this other world together, and it bonds you.”

This makes sense to me, and is potentially pretty cool.