I’ve been reading about the recent troubles college fraternities have gotten into because of two things: alcohol and hazing. Just when we’re convinced that all the customs of the world have changed, and that the old days and old ways are gone forever, we hear about dear old Alpha Gamma Ray or some other fraternity getting sued or thrown off campus because of killing one of its pledges by forcing him to drink a gallon of vodka within half an hour.
As in days of yore, everyone throws up their hands and exclaims, “How awful! How could this happen in our enlightened society?” So let’s think about that.
For openers, start with the booze. Historians tell us that alcohol was invented about three seconds after the Big Bang occurred 13.8 billion years ago. (I’m exaggerating, of course, but I often do this to make a point.) My point is that alcohol has been around ever since humans discovered (by accident or intent) how to make it. Since that time, alcohol has been part of life. One theory says man was a hunter/gatherer until he began growing crops that could be fermented or distilled. He soon learned that by tossing in some sugar and other ingredients and stirring the mix for a few weeks, he could produce a marvelous beverage. When swallowed, it gave him a whole new outlook on life. He shouted, “No more hunting deer and groundhogs for me – I’m gonna be a farmer!”
Humans – male and female, young and old – have been enjoying and/or dying from alcohol ever since. Despite hundreds of years of medical research, no one has found exactly why most people drink in moderation (or not at all) while others become an alcoholic gradually or from their first sip. Alcoholism treatment has emerged from the dark ages, but the success rates of the various methods are open to question. That’s because alcoholism research is often a foggy field filled with unreliable subjects (active drunks) and the inability of the various experts to agree on just what alcoholism is.
It’s a mistake to think that alcohol and fraternities are automatically linked. They’re not. Throughout our country we find fraternities (and their colleges) that have few regulations on alcohol use, while others have successfully clamped down on student drinking. But in America banning booze is a tricky endeavor (witness our nation’s 13-year disaster with the Prohibition Amendment). It has the same predictable success rate as banning sex or Big Macs. My own college prohibited alcohol for one year in the 1950s; the result was a farce.
All in all, it’s unrealistic to expect college students (whether or not they’re members of a fraternity) or any other segment of the population to refrain from drinking. Even so, society is justified in trying to ban drunken driving, the serving of alcohol to minors and other abuses.
Hazing is another ancient tradition that grabs headlines from time to time, at least when it results in injury or death to its victims, who are usually initiates or recruits. The experts aren’t sure where hazing started, but variations of it are found in organizations around the globe. To fully examine hazing is to risk losing one’s belief in human decency. What in our souls can justify imposing rituals – ranging from humiliation to sheer torture – on our brothers and sisters to punish their unwitting crime of being outsiders who merely wish to come inside?
I underwent mild (and non-alcoholic) hazing twice in my checkered history. The first occasion was when, as crew members on our ship reaching the equator en route to Korea in 1951, my fellow polliwogs (who had not previously crossed the equator) and I were subjected to disgusting but good-natured abuse by the shellbacks (sailors who had earlier experienced the tradition.)
Other hazing came when I chose a fraternity. One night my pledge class was seated at tables on which the actives (upper-classmen) had placed small dishes of canned fruit topped with whipped cream, which was actually shaving cream. The actives took joy at watching the pledges gag as they swallowed the first mouthful. Otis, a senior bullyboy with whom I shared a mutual loathing, stood waiting for me to retch. But I fooled him. I calmly swallowed most of the fruit and shaving cream, to the amazement of the actives and the rage of my enemy Otis. It was one of the most satisfying incidents of my life.
To my mind the truth about extreme hazing, wherever it occurs, is this: it is bullying, pure and simple. Beneath its surface almost always lurks sadism. But I’m neither an expert nor a sadist. So forgive me if I’m wrong.