Recent news of hazing at Florida A&M University has us the nation in a “daze,” and rightfully so. Never should a student lose his or her life over something so silly. College is supposed to be an institution of higher education; a place for students to mature in a controlled environment; a place where parents shouldn’t have to worry about the safety of their children.
BUT, what would be considered an adequate response to this tragedy? Is our response a logical one? What, if anything, can we learn from this situation? I submit to you that our response to this unfortunate event is extremely overblown. Neither the reaction nor the punishment fit what society has labeled a “crime.”
Does a Hazing Epidemic Really Exist?
Let me say this upfront. Under NO conditions should we excuse actions that lead to death or permanent injury. But the reality of the situation is that death, in particular, is a relatively rare occurrence when it comes to hazing activities. I know you’re thinking, “life is precious,” or, “one death is too many.” Ugh. Please spare me the semantics.
The truth is that we participate in activities with higher risks of death than hazing all the time. According to the NHTSA, the chance of death in a motor vehicle accident is 1 for every 10,000 citizens per year, or 0.01%. Since 1838, there have been roughly 160 deaths related to hazing. This number reflects all hazing related deaths, including those attributable to renegade chapters, non-Greek letter organizations, and deaths of those hazing the pledges. The number of deaths attributable to BGLOs (Black Greek Letter Organizations), their associated renegade chapters, and HBCU bands total approximately, 12.
Let’s assume each organization in the divine 9 has 150,000 members. That’s a total of 1.35 million members since 1906, or 12,800 people becoming members of BGLOs each year. 12 deaths over this period means that one’s chance of death for participation in hazing activities is 0.0009%. Driving a car is 11 times more dangerous than joining one of these organizations.
Of course, not all members pledge or experience hazing. If 25% of all members of these organizations do fit into the pledged/hazed category, we should expect to see 33-34 total hazing related deaths for BGLOs (including bands, sports teams, and renegade chapters). But we don’t. We have 12.
Public fallout from hazing tragedies have led to society labeling hazing as a crime without the cost-benefit analysis appropriate for such a decision (See recent remarks from Florida Governor, Rick Scott). I don’t know whether the results of said analysis would be favorable or unfavorable for hazers or hazing “victims.” What I do know is that the existence of tragedy cannot, by itself, mean that an activity isn’t worth doing. If you don’t agree, ask coal miners or skydivers.
Does Society’s Response Make Sense?
Perhaps the most troubling issue isn’t that these activities exist in the first place, but instead how society responds. For instance, hazing related deaths are by no means new occurrences, dating back to 1838 by one account. Nor are they limited to one particular type of organization, including sports teams, fraternities, sororities, bands, and school classification (freshman versus upperclassmen).
Accepting that these activities currently do and will continue to exist, are hazing laws in their current form adequate? I suggest that they are not only inadequate, but they are extreme overreactions. Society already has laws for assault and battery, what makes hazing laws any different? The problem with using assault/battery laws to deal with hazing deals with the issue of implicit consent on behalf of the “victim.” I use quotes when calling recipients of hazing “victims” because I believe continued participation on their part amounts to some kind of implicit consent. The vast increase of hazing laws seemingly reflects society’s answer to the reasonable retort by hazers, claiming, “how can I be held legally accountable if he/she agreed to participate?”
Hazing Laws are Paternalistic
Hazers have a point here. Why should the law step in and provide a remedy for someone that is unhappy with the terms of his or her agreement? Here, the law takes on a disturbingly paternalistic tone, suggesting that regardless of what a “victim” agrees to, the law actually knows what’s best for them.
Yes, it’s true that the law does occasionally strike a paternalistic tone, but these instances usually involve groups of people unable to adequately protect themselves. Some examples include our rules regarding statutory rape for children younger than an age at which we believe they are capable of consent, or regulations aimed at consumers who are at an information disadvantage. I therefore find it absurd that hazing laws give adults a mulligan on their initial decision, or alternatively, a chance at vengeance. Most often the participants are over 18 years old and capable of entering into legally binding contracts. These “victims” aren’t in the same category of individuals who we believe are incapable of making proper decisions for themselves.
Is justice really served by punishing hazers? If our true goal is to protect people from making poor decisions, providing “victims” a legal “way-out” seems counterintuitive. There is no disincentive for participation. As long as there are people wanting the “pledge experience,” hazing laws are there to provide a safety net for when the “experience” ends up being more than they expected. Using the justice system to clean up bad decisions made by willing participants is also a waste of our limited fiscal resources. A more appropriate approach would involve making it clear to participants that they are participating at their own risk. Only by forcing people to internalize the consequences of their own actions will we achieve our goal of preventing people from making uninformed decisions to pledge. Individuals who continue to participate will be the ones knowledgeable of and comfortable with the risk they are taking. These educated decision makers will make more informed decisions and will be less likely to turn to the law in the event that the risk they voluntarily took, takes a turn for the worse.
I am by no means a psychologist, but one cannot help but note the relationship between society’s responses to events like these, and a generation for whom common descriptive terms include, “sense of entitlement,” and “instant gratification.” These are the kids who each received a trophy regardless of whether they won or lost. This is the group whose parents decided, “no one will tell my child what to do, except me.” These are the children of the parents who have made America into a highly litigious society, with their children threatening to sue each other instead of fighting it out on the playground.
The easy question is whether those responsible for hazing others should be punished. The harder question instead involves us considering what role personal responsibility should play in our society, and to what extent we’re comfortable shifting that responsibility off of those upon whom it traditionally has fallen. I’m prepared to concede that it may be too late…. but me, personally, I want that old thing back.
 The number of fatalities is divided by the entire US population to get the 1 per 10,000 ratio. I will assume that the entire US population is a proper denominator and represents an accurate number of people who travel by motor vehicle.
 This number is an extremely low estimate. It does not including the number of people participating in renegade chapter activities, or band/sports related hazing. The resulting numbers will, therefore, be highly inflated in terms of one’s chance of death due to hazing activities.