Reflections on HAZING
Adam Blatner, M.D.

(Revised August 2, 2002)
 What are initiations about? I think they're based on the need to help people move away from childish or simplistic attitudes and to become more deeply familiar with and also committed to a given group. The kind of initiation, then, would depend on the goals of the group.
However, I suspect that there is a good deal of cultural lag. Men's groups often bond in a fellowship that on one level really asks, in effect, "Can you take it?" Are you tough?  My hunch is that fraternities and other groups that in the past valued a kind of male bonding were working from the initiatory requirements of warriors.

The key to being a warrior is two-fold. One, there is a norm of toughness, of aggressiveness, what today is called "attitude." Second, there is a cold determination not to be bothered by assaults from the other side, or from circumstances. Thus, the hazing process in a sense cultivates the psychological dynamism called "identification with the aggressor." Instead of giving in to feeling victimized, the initiate is encouraged to take on an attitude of "I'm going to give it out as much as I'm taking it!" This is a form of compensation and reaction formation, as if to whisper inside, "I'm not weak, I'm strong. I'm not afraid, I'm the mean guy who others are afraid of!"

A variation of this is a process of learning to screen out, to become unaware of discomfort. Humiliated, one becomes indifferent to one's own pride–or it's held off until some future time when one can secretly pride oneself on being on the in-group. Frightened, one focuses instead on grim will to get through, and one commands oneself, "Don't let it get to you."

This toughening is appropriate for warriors, because the essence of that role is to keep fighting even though one has been wounded, hurt. If an arm is cut off, keep fighting with the other arm. If both arms are gone, kick the enemy; if the legs are shot off, bite him to death!  A capacity to fight with ferocity and persistence is adaptive in a world where there really are other tribes who will steal all you have, rape your women, and kill you just for fun unless you kill them first.

The problem, of course, is that we live in a world that is apparently becoming civilized–at least for the most part. And men who have become warriors also have a lot of difficulty later on in life in noticing their own feelings or valuing more sensitive feelings in others. There's a great tendency to immediately convert any perceived assault on one's sense of power into an intensification of behaviors that restore that sense of power.

This is also projected upon others, such as sons or daughters, who are expected to share the view of "it's a dog-eat-dog" world, and to learn to be tough, above all. Being intelligent is only in the service of gaining an advantage. You can readily see that certain activities are considered "sissy" and unworthy of status. And learning how to engage with women on a give-and-take basis, to deal with emotions, and the like, all are skills that are tied up with an almost overwhelming sense of vulnerability.

The Allergy to Shame

 Another way of thinking about this is that, as I say, every culture teaches its youngsters to attend to certain things and to ignore certain things. In the jungles, one learns to look out for subtle movements and other natural cues–to sharpen the senses that civilized folks would just overlook. They also need to learn to ignore mosquito bites and other sorts of discomforts that city folks can't handle.

 Being raised in the suburbs, other things become the focus of attention, and other things become the focus of not-paying-attention-to. This goes on for thousands of variables in the environment.

 Part of the sensitizing process for the warrior is a mixture, due to the hazing process. Shame a kid a lot and the emotion becomes inflamed into an unacceptable level of humiliation. One must act to take re-adjusting action–vengeance, retaliation, fighting back, reasserting power by bullying others–something. Otherwise one feels one's humiliation to be devouring of the self-esteem.

 Now in a rapidly changing fairly civilized culture, in contrast, one of the greatest skills for the truly flexible entrepreneur or scientist is to learn to be able to comfortably admit mistakes, to not react to that little jolt of shame that is inevitable when mistakes are made. Instead, there needs to be an active interest in detecting one's own mistakes and correcting them–what in business is called "quality assurance."  It's almost the opposite from a warrior culture, even if there is a subtle sub-theme of competition of large group against large group. Mind-competing and body-competing are different in big ways.

Group Membership

 Another function of hazing is that of promoting a sense that "we've all been through it," which in turn builds a sense of group cohesion.

 One of the factors in many warrior cultures is a degree of being able to flip into blind obedience. Depending on the kind of fighting the culture does, some operate on the basis of massed effect–that is, they have to work as a team, a group. Again, one learns to not-pay-attention to certain things–in this case, the temptation to individual initiative–to fight with unusual (or foolish?) heroism, or even more likely, to turn and run away. Instead, one stays with the group spirit, feeds on the sense of "we-ness" moving toward their goal.

 A related emotion is also suppressed in the course of hazing–squeamishness at becoming really aggressive. Often, a degree of over-learning is developed, so that one becomes not only willing to kill, but eager; and not only to kill, but to bully, hurt, intimidate, and even sadistically torture. It's sad to recognize that such savagery is actively cultivated in certain sub-groups, but it's true.

 Nowadays, our military training is problematic because we are seeking to train for a great capacity for morale, initiative, the maintenance of moral character, aggressiveness, etc.–and for many people, it's an almost impossible balance to maintain. It requires a continued cultivation of good judgment, which is far less visceral, far more cerebral, and almost incompatible with the old-time warrior.

 Appealing to simple emotionality requires a degree of simplification of thought. One must become deeply convinced of the rightness of one's own position, and methods, as well. Sometimes, because this is often difficult to justify one's own aggressivenes, the evil of the enemy has to be called on, built up, in order to justify this kind of commitment. We're right because, if nothing else, look at how really wicked and nasty the enemy is! And it's a replay of Saturday-morning television cartoons, with the bad guys being portrayed as all-bad, and the good guys all-good. There was no place for conflict resolution strategies, negotiations, compromises–that was for another species– the grown-ups, maybe.

 There is a delicious simplicity and appeal to this level of simplicity. Fight the bad and triumph. It is the spirit of the Roman god, Mars, the Greek god Ares. Even if they're not exposed to war movies or war toys, kids will play out their fantasies of the problems and difficulties of life being resolved through physical combat. They'll play these stories out with toys, in drawings, and in stories. Teenagers create situations of in-group and out-group, and enjoy competitions with winners and losers. But real wars generally and increasingly have more mixed outcomes.

The Shift in Mentality in a Multi-Cultural World

 We were somewhat "spoiled" by the Second World War. The United States was relatively untouched (compared with the devastation and mass casualties of central Europe and Asia), and the unequivocal "win," combined with the emergence of the virtue of combatting aggression (which contrasted with the Realpolitik or practical maneuverings of the previous few centuries) all served to reinforce the illusion of national self-righteousness mixed with the feeling of inevitable victory.

 The Korean and Vietnam Wars have limited that illusion somewhat; the former because it came to a draw; the latter because its fundamental values were questioned. Still, there remains an ethic of simplistic good vs evil, played out for our entertainment by wrestlers, in electronic combat games, and scores of other spheres.

 But in the wake of the Nurenberg Trials regarding Nazi war crimes, a growing sense that individual soldiers have individual moral responsibility has begun to infiltrate the culture. And a more general sense of inclusiveness has made simple prejudice against a group as a whole no longer politically correct. These and scores of related shifts in culture are making it less acceptable to sustain a valued warrior ethic.

 Racism, sexism, and general callousness is an inevitable demand of groups that require an indifference to discomfort, pain, and domination. The natural resentment at being chronically subjected to indignity and stress becomes turned against, first, the sense of weakness in oneself, and then against anything else which seems weak. Further, the definition of weakness then becomes generalized to include any desire for personal consideration, any doubts, delicacy of sensibility or communication, etc. In fact, in order to "prove" how "not weak" one is, there's a tendency to go to the other extreme. (The psychological maneuvers here are called "counter-phobic" and "reaction formation, which mean doing what is feared just because it is feared; and exaggerating the opposite qualities to what may be subtly sensed as present but negative to the sense of self.)

 Another important psychological dynamic is displacement, taking one's accumulated resentment out on someone or something else--the scapegoat, the weak or rebellious one, the one who seems to refuse to be a team player. The hardened personality tolerates nothing that reminds him of his own weakness, even unconsciously, and finds it easy to hate and justify hostile and even violently degrading, sadistic behavior towards anyone who is perceived to carry any of those "weak" qualities.

 The weakness involved is not mere vulnerability--a soldier may be able to be generous and protective of certain categories of people who are exempt from this value system--sometimes certain groups of women, children of certain ages, elderly and frail, sick or in other ways culturally defined. Yet these boundaries vary for the norms of the warrior class, and some troops may protect certain groups that other troops would exploit or harm.

 Of course, modern cultures don't need troops to operate in that same way as much. There's more emphasis on brain rather than brawn. As "hi-tech" equipment becomes more of a factor in warfare, and terrorism and involvement of non-combatants in the process make everyone a "soldier," then the virtue of being hardened to physical discomfort must give way to the virtue of becoming receptive to the subtle cues of intuition and creativity, and that requires an entirely different kind of training.

 Instead of hazing, people need to feel safe and encouraged to bring to bear their individual talents. It's different in business and industry, too. A century ago workers needed to be able to sustain brute force, "tote that barge, lift that bale." Now an increasing proportion of the work force needs to be helped to be more creative, capable of initiative, teamwork, self-directed and self-critical problem-solving. As automation begins to to more of the simple physical labor, and computers do more routine mental tasks, time and energy and consciousness is liberated to attend to a new set of challenges.

 These challenges were there before, of course, but we didn't have the time, technology, knowledge, or personnel adapted to this new approach. It's begun to change in the last quarter of this century. However, all these have been developing in many aspects of contemporary culture--though there is still a cultural lag in the "traditions" of many military schools, gangs, fraternities, etc. It's important to understand what the norms of such groups are, how they may have been adaptive at one time, but are increasingly maladaptive in the long run.

 These "hazing" based groups require a sacrifice of one's own critical thinking in order to join with the group norms, and this includes an "us" vs "them" attitude. Sadly, most of these groups avoid any psychological self-reflection, and understandably so, because the superimposition of a contemplation of present socio-cultural changes would make much of their raison d'etre obsolete!

 Parts of this paper were written before the Columbine High School shootings and other school shootings, and the growing awareness of the pervasiveness of bullying and teasing and the impact that it had on those who were bullied. The ideas in this paper seem to take on new depth in light of that "consciousness raising" process.

 We live in a time of increasing inclusiveness. Prejudice, exclusiveness, and rigidity of boundaries are becoming negatively valued. Shifting membership in teams, administrative reorganization, mobility of participants, expanding and even international markets and networking, these and other postmodern developments overshadow earlier traditions of primitive competition-oriented teamwork. And so hazing becomes obsolete also.

What do you think of these ideas? I'd be happy to hear your suggestions. For responses, email me!

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