I’ve been thinking about closed groups and hazing, because of the news about the Miami Dolphins and a lineman terrorizing a second-year lineman. The Miami Dolphins, while a select group, and closed off from the rest of us, are not a fraternity. It’s a collection of players of a game, people making a paycheck. What happened in Miami wasn’t hazing. It was terrorizing.
I have a friend who’s a big city firefighter. He told me similar tales of what he’d had to undergo as a probationary firefighter, when you can still be let go for any reason, i.e. when you can’t fight back. The vile things said to him, the less-than-human status he was assigned, the humiliations and degrading tasks. Never being allowed to sleep. Pails of water heaved onto him as he catnapped. Being made to work while others slept, to do all the cleanup after meals and to have his wife’s looks critiqued, his honor questioned, and the worst names in the world snarled in his ear. He was disgusted and thoroughly disillusioned. Again, not a fraternity. But a place that now had entrenched bad behavior that would not let it go because THEY’D had to undergo it and they’d be damned if the people coming after didn’t have to undergo it too. Hazing is a virus.
A fraternity isn’t a paycheck, though. It’s extraneous. You can decide to pledge or not, It’s no skin off anyone’s nose if you don’t.
I think I know why people join fraternities. You see the composite portraits going back a hundred years of serious-faced young men staring back at you in suits. The mounted deer with the necktie and mortarboard lends a certain gravity to a paneled room. The brothers trot out the names of famous alumni: astronauts, presidents, Supreme court justices, governors, entrepreneurs, war heroes. If I join this group, you think to yourself, I have only to show my fraternity ring to the right guy at NASA and I’m on the next shuttle, or I’ll get to clerk for a justice while the rest of my cronies play Grand Theft Auto. It never really does play out that way. Years from now one of your fraternity brothers will own a trash-hauling company and you - now chief procurement officer at XYZ Corp. will give him the nod over cheaper, hungrier less-well connected and better companies, screwing your company and yourself in the bargain. That’s as glamorous as it gets. Oh, and the awkward life-insurance sales pitch lunches. I must admit those are amazing.
You wouldn’t think it to look at me, but I was once a member of an august fraternity. Many of my friends, when reaching man’s estate, were given bids by a chapter of a national fraternity during our freshman year, as was I, but they accepted and I didn’t.
I had the idea that college was an unknown quantity and was determined not to flunk out. I still had to work a certain number of hours per week to make ends meet and I had no idea how much time I could give away. I told the nice fraternity boys this, and they praised me and accepted my explanation without rancor. But there was about me now a bit of “the one that got away” at a time of shrinking fraternity memberships.
Once my friends got in, I was always invited to fraternity functions and it might be said that I enjoyed all the benefits of membership without any dues or pledging. I got a bid every semester and every semester I asked myself why I’d ever want to pay for the cow. By junior year I relented. The sales talk had become more refined. We look on you as a brother. Don’t you want to be our brother? You’re not a freeloader, we know that. Etc., etc.
Here, I told myself, were ideal conditions. I was a social peer with all the brothers, was practically a pet of the fraternity, and I was older and less in awe of things. I could handle this. Privately, people told me they’d grease the skids for me and it’d be a doddle. I signed my bid and passed it in. The One That Got Away had been landed.
You will not be surprised to learn that it was not a doddle. Certain brothers, some younger than me, took a perverse delight in provoking discomfort or hardship in someone they never could have got the upper hand with otherwise. The worst ones were those who had themselves been picked on during their pledging. Outside the fraternity they were all fun & friendship, but within they took on a Captain Bly sort of ruthlessness. Their aspects changed. I lost friends, meaning that I tossed friendships over the side because who does these things to a friend?
I won’t go into detail about what kind of hazing took place, firstly because this isn’t a sob story, secondly because I knew, to a degree, what I was getting into beforehand, and thirdly, because things had been much worse in the past. But yes, we were made to drink to excess, we were kidnapped and dropped off in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night with empty pockets in the time before cell phones, and we were sent out on outrageous, unlawful or degrading errands, all with the rallying cry of “weeding out the weak” and “brotherly bonding.” What absolute bilge!
My own response in the inferno was to overdo things. When we were sent out to steal signs in the middle of the night, we stole the college’s sign and dropped it in the middle of the fraternity house to looks of terror and astonishment. Had the police instituted inquiries, the fraternity could easily have been shut down. If I am at risk, I wanted them to know, so are you.
Not all of pledging was like that. For the most part, a pledge is buried in detail and minutiae. His appearance had to be just so. He had to carry about ten things on him at all times. He had to be able to break a dollar morning, noon and night. If a brother asked him to break a dollar, another brother stood behind him to make the same request and then issued demerits to the hapless pledge who only started the day with four quarters. Every week you had to have a tete a tete with every brother and ask him to sign your pledge book. He would, if he were so disposed, ask you to do something bigger for him. It was like standing in a cloud of mosquitoes all semester long.
There were only a few times that I felt things had collectively crossed the line - the human dignity line - and when people wring their hands about NFL hazing or other groups doing it, and ask aloud “Where is the line?” - like there’s no way to tell these things - I will tell you: when you affect the dignity of another person and hold him up to ridicule or scorn or expose him to danger. Reasons for doing so are invalid, whatever they are, if all he wanted in the first place was to be was part of a group.
I will say this: probably half the brotherhood regretted every aspect of overseeing pledging except the ritual fun nights that were pure socializing. But they kept their mouths shut and only offered private sympathy.
Early in the pledging process, the fraternity assigned every pledge a “big brother.” Mine had been a high school chum of mine. He was a benign force during pledging, usually absent because of his newfound interest in evangelical Christianity. He was always off meeting with likeminded people and rarely came to parties or fraternity rituals. He did attend initiation night, however, the one with the paddling. I looked on aghast as the pledge whacked the big brother (with the handmade and decorated paddle) and then the big brother returned the favor. Some of these whacks looked like they might destroy the pants. My big brother drew me aside. “I’m not into this crap,” he said, quietly. “But most of the brothers are. I’ll make you a deal. If you give me a light one - you have to do a big windup to fool the brothers - I’ll do the same for you.” Then this man of God, whom I’d known man and boy, this Child of Peace, I say, held out his hand. I shook it eagerly. When it was our turn, I took a few practice swings, eliciting oohs and ahhs from the brothers. The sound of the air bending around the paddle as I windmilled it was impressive. I backed up a few steps as my big brother held his ankles and took a flying run, pulling back with my wrist at the end and landing an ineffectual tap on his fanny. He lurched forward, complicit in the shadow play. As you may be able to guess from this buildup, when I handed him the paddle he knocked me into next week. When I asked him about it after, he shrugged, grinned, and said his big brother had tricked him in the same manner.
Sometimes, when I look back, I’m ashamed of myself for not having quit the pledge process. Other times I clap myself on the back for trudging through and getting to the other side. When I did get in I provoked the ire of the hidebound elements in the brotherhood by not making the pledges do a damned thing in my name. If they were supposed to get my signature, I gave them permission to sign on my behalf. When the weekly horsetrading took place, I’d suggest we meet for coffee at the pledge’s leisure and when there gave advice, asked after his people, told him something of myself, then shook hands warmly at cup’s end.
You can never be someone’s brother if you treat him with contempt. Later, when he gets in, you might forgive him his earlier second-class status, but he’ll never quite forgive you for making him endure it.