“I wish I had been hazed more,” said Clark, simply. If he was being at all sarcastic, he certainly concealed it well. Perhaps it was just our naive freshmen eyes that prevented us from understanding his statement. No one wants to be hazed, right? Just saying the word evokes thoughts of scandal, pain, humiliation and fear. Hazing is not only strictly prohibited on Penn’s campus, but it is also a criminal offense in the state of Pennsylvania. In certain situations around the country, hazing has been so extreme as to physically endanger those involved. Writing about such a taboo topic requires us to walk a fine line between implicating the organizations we are a part of and defending a practice that is clearly illegal. Yet, despite societal disapproval and legal restrictions, hazing is everywhere at Penn — not just in fraternity life, as it is in most colleges, but as a central part of extracurricular organizations as well. And we can’t help but wonder: why?
Clark, a junior whose name has been changed to protect his identity, has been a member of a fraternity and five different student organizations on campus that employ some sort of hazing practice. “They’re great stories. It helps create a unified baseline; we instantaneously have something to talk about because we went through this ridiculous experience together.”
He paused for a moment to reflect, leaning back in his chair as if he were recalling a fond childhood memory. Plenty of organizations around campus make a point of keeping their hazing practices hush-hush: “when a group has secrets about how they haze their new members, it helps build a bond because you get to have your little stories and inside jokes that no one else knows about.” For Clark, those were hours spent in dark basements or nights coming home wasted and covered in a soup of unidentifiable substances.
But he loved it.
“At the end of the day it’s the stories that bring us together, not the hazing.” What he says may be true, but the pervasiveness of Penn’s hazing culture speaks to something that runs deeper in the fabric of our university.
Hazing has been a part of Penn for over 100 years, and the pervasive belief that hazing is good and necessary existed just as much in the early days as it does today. “It is good fun and it does a young fellow a lot of good to go through that kind of experience,” remarked a 1910 graduate of the University in The Evening Post, “It teaches him to shut his jaws tight, to bear pain unflinchingly and to fight under a disadvantage.”
Everyone knows that hazing happens around campus — that’s not what interested us. It was why. Why has hazing culture developed the way it has at Penn? Why, when you take something as universal and seemingly timeless as hazing, and you let it germinate at a place like Penn, does it flourish? The concept of hazing is often reserved for Greek life; at Penn, its boundaries extend far beyond fraternities to include everything from academic organizations and a capella groups to senior honor societies and student government.
Clark’s opinions on hazing seemed predictable — that hazing creates lasting bonds between its participants and gives way to hilarious stories of drunken debauchery. Ask any fraternity pledgemaster or senior society member why they haze and they’ll feed you some version of Clark’s theory about unity and bonding. This idea about hazing certainly might hold true, but it still didn’t seem to explain the sheer breadth of hazing and its ubiquity in student life at Penn.
Greg is a freshman who writes for a magazine on campus. When he was invited to the magazine’s “initiation” he thought it was in jest: “they jokingly posed it sort of like a fraternity thing; they came and slid an invitation under my door.” For the most part, it was a joke, with initiation tasks taking on a lighthearted feel. However, Greg noted that invitations to the initiation were only extended to those who showed a commitment to the magazine: “there was a level of exclusivity… you felt more connected than the people who didn’t do it.”
When asked if he were given the choice to join one of two clubs, identical except for the fact that one had a form of initiation or hazing, Greg replied “I would choose initiation, even if it was not fun, over no initiation.” When asked why, he responded with a knowing grin, “people want to feel special.”
This desire to “feel special” was something that began to emerge as a trend among those we spoke to about hazing at Penn. The idea that somehow hazing creates value in groups — that groups who haze are somehow perceived as more prestigious — was one that student after student began to emphasize.
Ryan, a Wharton freshman currently going through the pledging process in a Greek organization, was one who echoed this idea. “People here don’t want things to be easy” he said assuredly, “we want there to be barriers to entry; if everyone could do everything, things would lose value.” In true Wharton fashion, he followed with “scarcity creates value,” before catching himself — “No, exclusivity creates value; without exclusivity, there is far less allure to joining a group.”
Both Greg and Ryan saw initiations and hazing as ways of making members feel special, enclosed in a new and exclusive group of people that required these rites of passage to gain entrance. By making these groups ostensibly more difficult to join with something like hazing, it heightens the importance of that organization. And who doesn’t want to feel more important?
“As pledgemaster, I became acutely aware of the fact that hazing is illegal at Penn,” Brooke, a sorority “New Member Educator,” stated with a serious and thoughtful gaze. “But,” she continued, “I wanted to haze and be hazed harder. I wanted more tasks. I wanted it to be more public. I wanted to prove that I belonged, that I deserved to be a part of the organization, that it was all worth it.”
Much of Brooke’s thoughts on hazing had to do with its role as a status symbol: “If you’re doing the craziest, most ridiculous, most public displays of hazing, then your group is the coolest, the most exclusive.” For groups not recognized by the university, who can publicly haze their pledges outside of the jurisdiction of the university, “they make it really public, so that people know that they are part of that group.”
“Something different about Penn,” noted Brooke, “is that to be cool is to be involved.” Here, you are defined more than anything by what clubs and organizations to which you devote your time. In a place where nearly everyone is used to being recognized as special, “people want to stand out again.” But the logic goes that there is no use in involving yourself in an organization that anyone can join. Instead Penn students have a perpetual desire to work for the things they want.
OCR culture, as Brooke calls it, fosters an expectation among Penn students that, to be considered for the best opportunities, the process must be rigorous. “If you translate that to hazing, if you just become a member it’s totally not as gratifying. You don’t feel as good about yourself as you would if you had to suffer and earn your way into the group.” With a smirk, she concludes, “It’s like if Goldman [Sachs] was just giving away jobs, no one would care about it anymore.”
“Validation,” she said after a few quiet moments of pondering, glad to have found the word, “that’s what we’re seeking.” We haze and allow ourselves to be hazed for the bonds, for the stories, for the memories, but more than anything, for the validation. We want to validate ourselves and in the face of others by showing that we can do it and that we deserve to be distinguished.
So why is it that Clark, Greg, Ryan and Brooke each expressed a desire to be hazed more? Maybe it was simply the prospect of bonding with new friends. Maybe it was to build solidarity within their groups. Maybe it was to fulfil their innate human desire to belong to something larger than themselves. Or maybe it was something else entirely.
Maybe what many Penn students crave is differentiation.
It makes sense that a complex like this would develop among a student body like Penn’s. At a place where acceptance rates are rapidly approaching single digits, many of us can’t help but throw ourselves at things that we hope will make us seem like we matter. To excel in academics, we study. To excel in the social sphere, we join groups. To make those groups seem like they matter, we haze.
The grand irony of hazing and its motives is that, on one hand, hazing’s purpose is to bring people together, while, at the same time, Penn students endure hazing to differentiate themselves. Ultimately, that’s what all the onion–eating, food runs, scavenger hunts, binge drinking, goldfish–swallowing, sleep deprivation and “Hell Weeks” are about: bringing people together by setting them apart.
Chloe Bower and Patrick del Valle are freshmen, who are undeclared. They are from Long Island, NY and Seattle, WA, respectively.