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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.
Think of friends with whom you’ve had a weekend-long sleepover, with whom you’ve gone on a road trip, or participated in a workshop, or talked all night. The normal social rules are slightly altered by a period of openness and intimacy. That really can build love.
At their very best this is what initiations can be: Spaces where the normal rigidity of Harvard social life breaks down. Spaces to experiment, to open up to each other in new ways, to be vulnerable, to be weird.
But this is only accomplished with incredible conscientiousness. Because we do things in groups, and in secret, that we wouldn’t otherwise do. And the promise of belonging is such a heady reward, even when initiation activities are “optional,” it can be hard to say no.
There’s another belief that underlies hazing, the darker side of initiations. We haze, a friend of mine said, because “hardship creates community.”
This is just flat-out wrong.
Here’s the thing about hardship: It’s hard. I don’t mean “boohoo, I’m a millennial who grew up getting trophies for participation and I don’t want to be challenged.”
I mean that the world is already brimming with hardship. There is hardship happening right here, right now.
And frankly, hardship sucks. I made some of my best friends during periods of hardship. I was also a boring, sniveling, traumatized mess. And a lot of my relationships suffered, or ended.
Hardship doesn’t happen because someone decides to impose it upon us for our personal growth. Hardship, genuine hardship, is arbitrary, and often structural, and gives no shits about our personal growth.
Hardship tears us down.
For a lot of us, Harvard itself is a four-year hazing process. For students who have to learn alien class norms. For students who feel like they’re leaving their families and communities behind. For students struggling with depression, with racism, with intimate partner violence. And in the hazing process that is Harvard—in the hazing process that is life—the stakes are very, very high.
When people drop out of this hazing process, we don’t always get them back.
If we’re forced to choose between feeling like we belong and respecting the dignity of ourselves and others, then I say: Fuck belonging.
But we don’t have to choose.
Transformative, creative experiences of intimacy and community can coexist with physical and mental respect. In fact, it’s only when they coexist that we make our communities strong.
This semester, think hard about your initiations. Do you ask people to do compromising or humiliating things? Do you pressure people to ingest alcohol or drugs? Do you sexualize people who are less powerful than you? Are your activities truly optional? Does everyone feel empowered when they say yes, and safe when they say no?
I want to belong.
But I don’t want to belong at the expense of other people. I don’t want to belong at the expense of myself.
I want to feel that thing I feel at a party about three drinks in, when every face is the face of someone who loves me, and every friend wants to make out. I want to feel that thing when my heart expands to squish my ribcage and every stupid Top-40 song sounds like senior prom.
I want to exist in that wild, wonderful space of collective imagination. And I want to know that my community will bring me safely home.
Reina A.E. Gattuso ‘15 is a joint literature and studies of women, gender, and sexuality concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Fridays.
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