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Since college hazing keeps resulting in deaths that are getting top billing in the news, it’s a good time to explain the psychology behind this ritual. For anyone interested in joining a fraternity, sorority, or any other social club which requires that you voluntarily submit to a period of being mocked, humiliated, degraded and assaulted by established members before you’ll be “accepted” by the animals, here’s why you don’t want to go there:
Every human relationship has an element of power. If the power is managed well, you end up with a functional relationship. If the power is mismanaged, you end up with abuse.
In peer dynamics (teen-teen, child-child, adult-adult), power needs to be equally shared by both parties for the relationship to be healthy.
In authority dynamics (boss-employee, policeman-citizen, general-cadet, teacher-student), the power must be allocated unequally. The authority figure must insist on keeping the majority of the power, while still allocating enough power to the lower ranking person. How much difference in power is appropriate depends on the purpose of the relationship.
Now if you don’t think that authority dynamics are ever a good idea, try running a military in which no one listens to anyone else. Or try driving down the street when no one is respecting the traffic laws. Authority dynamics are critical to the success of things like civil order, social justice, military operations, education, and rearing children. Humans simply can’t function well in groups without a recognized leadership structure.
Now in authority dynamics, there are two main ways that things go badly. The first way is when the authority figure hordes too much power, thus leaving the other person with less power than they should have. A classic example here is when you see parents abusing their children, prison guards abusing prisoners, and dictators who are slaughtering everyone who doesn’t agree with them.
The second way authority dynamics go bad is when the authority figure fails to hold onto enough power. Examples here are parents who let their kids boss them around, teachers who let students cuss them out in public, and the boss who allows his employees to slack off without consequences.
In peer dynamics, things go south very fast when one person starts hording power. Remember that in peer dynamics, power must be shared equally as much as possible to keep things healthy. Marriage is supposed to be a peer dynamic, yet many treat it like an authority dynamic, and this often results in abuse. Coworkers of equal rank in a company should be fostering peer dynamics, yet often one coworker will start trying to hog power and promote him or herself as superior to the others, thus creating a very negative work environment. That friend of yours who is always insisting that you do things her way is trying to turn a peer dynamic into an authority dynamic. Notice how irked you feel by her pushiness–that’s you instinctively recognizing the fact that she’s messing up the power balance in your relationship.
When parents of young children try to act like their kids’ “buddies” and refuse to ever hold boundaries or demand respect, their kids end up hating them. Why? Because kids instinctively know when their parents aren’t claiming enough power to make the authority dynamic functional.
When police start making unfair arrests and using unjustified force, civilians become angry and afraid. Why? Because they know the authority dynamic is being messed up. The same works in reverse: when citizens try to drag authority figures down to peer level by not respecting law enforcement officers, police end up very upset for good reasons. No one wants to be abused, and no one wants to live in the midst of social chaos. Humans are very good at sensing when abuse is happening, even if they don’t know how to articulate exactly what’s going wrong.
So now let’s talk about frats & sororities. You’re going to college and you want to join some club of your peers–what kind of dynamic should that relationship have? When you’re a young adult trying to join a club of other young adults, you’re supposed to be joining a peer dynamic. That means that the power should be balanced equally among all group members as much as possible. If someone starts acting like king of the hill, other members should rein him in to keep the group’s peer dynamics healthy.
So now let’s talk about hazing. What is the purpose of hazing? Hazing is about taking what should be a peer dynamic environment and forcing it into a dysfunctional authority dynamic. Clubs that promote degrading initiation processes treat their established members as authority figures who greatly outrank any applicants. Already this is a set up for disaster because anytime you take what should be a peer dynamic and turn it into an authority dynamic, you’re guaranteed to end up with a very dysfunctional and abusive situation. The problem with frats, sororities, and many adult social clubs is that there is no justification for an authority dynamic to be developed. The group members are of equal rank in their society, and in their club, thus they should be treating each other as equals by sharing power.
Hazing rituals are notorious for being humiliating, painful, and socially degrading. But why? Well, when clubs insist on hazing you before allowing you to join, they aren’t just demanding that you agree to sign up for a highly dysfunctional peer-turned-authority dynamic. They are insisting that you accept being abused for the pleasure of others. Hazing is sick. The whole notion of demanding that another human publicly debase himself for someone else’s pleasure is nothing more than a sadistic power trip.
Sadism is a highly dysfunctional mindset in which a person gets off on witnessing someone else in misery. That misery can come in many forms: physical, psychological, emotional, etc.. Some sadists are addicted to a very specific form of suffering, while others will take whatever they can get. Often in groups that are into hazing, there are a few true sadists in the group who are pressuring non-sadists to act like sadists in order to avoid persecution. In other words, the guy making you grovel in the dirt might inwardly feel very disturbed by what he’s doing, but he’s going to pretend that he finds your humiliation hilarious because he’s afraid of the true sadists in the group.
True sadists get a very real psychological (and often physical and/or sexual) rush out of seeing other humans suffer in some way. True sadists often have a very disturbing and domineering aura about them which causes other people to be afraid to cross them. It often only takes one or two sadists to keep large groups of fearful followers in line. A stellar modern day example of sadism run amuck is ISIS—a group of terrorists who devote a lot of their resources to torturing people just to do it. Wherever you find a large group of folks cranking out the torture fests, you can be sure there is a domineering sadist at the helm, and that sadist is managing to control large amounts of fearful followers simply by threatening them with the possibility of being his next victim.
Now the longer you feed sadistic desires, the stronger they become. Just as you will quickly tire of a new song if you listen to it non-stop, sadists grow bored with their methods of getting a rush. This boredom pitches them into withdrawal, and they feel an intense need to hunt down more “exciting” ways of making others squirm. When you see college hazing methods growing more and more extreme, you can be sure there is a true sadist in the group who is experimenting with new ways to feed his mental addiction. The sadist is bored, and so he’s coercing his followers into helping him execute new ways of trying to torture people. Because the followers are freaked out by the sadist, no one stands up to him, and the sadist ends up with a very nice little kingdom for himself.
Hazing rituals are a double blessing for sadists. First, they get to enjoy watching you suffer during your initiation. Second, by demanding that you endure extensive abuse before you’ll be accepted into the group, sadists are screening out potential threats to their authority. The sadist does not want anyone with strong self-respect joining his group, or that person will likely stand up to the sadist, swing followers over to his side, and topple the sadist’s kingdom. So hazing is very much about screening out any threats to the group in order to protect a very sick and dysfunctional social dynamic.
Think about it: if you publicly demonstrate that you are willing to get hazed, you are declaring yourself to be easy to control, easy to dominate, and easy to abuse. What kind of psychological profile loves this kind of bait? Abusers do. Folks who have zero respect for you as a human–they just value you as someone they can use for their own benefit. What is the acceptance of such people really worth? When you get “accepted” by a group that uses degrading screening rituals, it’s like you’re a chicken who gets the “privilege” of being chosen out of the flock to be tomorrow night’s dinner. You really don’t want a sadist giving you a thumbs up. It’s really not a plus to be someone who sadists view as an easy, non-threatening target. And once you become a member of the sadist’s kingdom and it’s your turn to act like the creep by making some other applicant grovel at your feet, what then? How are you going to feel when you look in a mirror and see someone who treats his fellow humans like so much garbage? Whether you’re doing it for your own rush because you’re becoming a sadist yourself, or you’re doing it because you can’t scrape up enough character and courage to stand up to a creep, it’s hardly a positive situation.
Before you get too enamored with the idea of being “accepted,” stop to think about the character of the ones accepting you. Character matters. There’s a big difference between being approved of by God and being approved of by Satan. God’s approval is worth sacrificing everything to attain. Having Satan’s approval means you’re making some horrible soul choices and missing the whole point of your existence.
The next time you find yourself being offered membership into a group of folks who insist on kicking you around first, recognize their approval for the worthless thing that it is and be proud of the fact that they won’t take you. Being banned by abusers because you have too much self-respect to let them walk all over you—that’s hardly something to be ashamed of.
Help for Victims of Abuse: Breaking Out of the Doormat Syndrome
Emerging From Darkness: Guidance & Hope for Malicious Torturers
The Element of Power in Human Relationships
Improving Your Social Skills: The Principles of Coercion & Power
Rejecting Labels of Inferiority: Help for Victims of Abuse
Shady Shepherd Tactics: Gaining Rank