Opinion Asks: Hazing and Personal Choice

by The Dartmouth Opinion Staff | 3/30/15 6:18pm

We asked our opinion staff: "In a statement responding to its extended suspension due to branding allegations, Alpha Delta fraternity attorney George Ostler suggested that branding, as a form of self-expression, does not fully satisfy the definition of hazing. Broadly speaking, what criteria should determine the College’s hazing policy, and to what extent should they cover optional or personal choices?"


While it is dangerous to use subjective criteria when it comes to defining what constitutes hazing, in the case of personal choices and expression, the College should be well within its bounds to utilize a definition of “reasonable expectation.” Any action, symbol or ritual that is understandable to the public and demonstrable in public without shame, ridicule or necessity of explanation is not hazing. Fanny packs, lunch boxes and blue bows are not hazing. But by its very nature of having to be “hidden,” an action like branding falls into the category of “unreasonable expectation.” If it is indeed self-expression, why is it kept secret? Perhaps it is because those involved in such an action recognize that its very occurrence requires an explanation — because it extends beyond the realm of reasonable human behavior.

— Aylin Woodward ’15

Hazing is an interesting topic because it crosses between two distinct territories — an act punishable by law and a rite of passage meant for group cohesion. My personal opinion on hazing tends toward one that is closer to disgust, but I do concede that there is value in having a ritual that is shared between members across generations. Ultimately, humans are social animals, and human societies and behaviors reflect that. There is always a hierarchy, a pecking order, a dominant and a recessive, a food chain. That sort of group dynamic is rarely free of undesirable elements, including hazing. Although any form of hazing that is mean-spirited, destructive to one’s identity or self-esteem or forced upon a new member should be eradicated, group rituals that we agree are benign and will not bring direct physical or mental harm unto somebody should be given the benefit of the doubt. Meanwhile, branding — an archaic form of torture and punishment — does not qualify as an acceptable group ritual, regardless of whether it was a personal choice.

— Annika Park ’18

It seems to me the branding that took place here is more along the lines of self-expression — albeit very dumb and self-harming self-expression — than it is a form of hazing. As far as I can tell, no one was forced to be branded. While the fact that a minority of members made what I consider to be a misguided choice to brand their skin reflects poorly upon the organization for allowing them to carry out this choice, it is not in and of itself proof of hazing. And while I do not think these events amount to hazing, I personally would not choose to associate with an organization that condones or facilitates such behavior.

— Isaac Green ’17

Simply because an individual volunteers to undergo certain treatment or to partake in a given activity does not mean that activity is not hazing. The pressure of a group can encourage someone to do something that they otherwise might not. This pressure can be very real and coercive, especially when partaking in said activity may be an implicit requisite to attain membership.

On the other hand, just because some people cannot imagine actually making a specific choice does not mean that choice is necessarily coerced. College students, who could be 30 years younger in age than administrators, exist in their own distinct culture. Students today do not make decisions in the same atmosphere as previous generations did. They might not consider harmful or extreme what, for example, a 65-year-old man might.

So this issue is a tricky one. We cannot just take people’s words that they truly elected — without any undue influence — to perform some action or have some action performed on them. But we also cannot impose our own decision-making calculus on others by assuming that they could only have taken certain actions under extreme duress.

— Michael McDavid ’15