Monday, February 8, 2010

A Failure of Imagination?

Although the story is not sport-related, I was intrigued by the recent news about a Rutgers University sorority that found itself in some hot water after allegations of some pretty serious hazing.

Like many sport teams that are built around some admirable goals, this sorority prided itself on community service. I imagine that, like most Greek organizations, they also espoused the virtue of sisterhood and loyalty to the organization. So why, when a group has some values that are, on their face, commendable and beneficial to society as a whole, do they use methods of initiation that are based in power, humiliation, and disrespect? What made the members of this sorority choose to beat their initiates and deprive them of food? It is this chasm of ideals that so baffles us every time we hear of such hazing-related events.

The answers to this question are complex but one quote in this article stood out to me as a blindingly bright example of how revenge, anger, and fear can cloud rational judgment about how people act. The cousin was quoted in this article as saying:

"I wanted to beat them back. Maybe if they got hit, they wouldn’t hit others. They’d know what it felt like."

And this, I believe, is exactly the wrong answer. More than likely, those doing the beating WERE beat themselves when they joined the sorority. They hit because THEY were hit. That is one thing we do know about hazing -- that it is rooted in this sense of perpetuating the suffering. "It was done to me so I will do it to others." Exactly the kind of thinking that those of us who work in education try relentlessly to challenge. It's not done overnight. The culture of these organizations and the perpetuation of hazing relies on members operating completely within the context of the organization. It discourages critical moral thinking (despite all of the "community service" that these groups are involved in) and punishes those who don't comply.

Teaching moral decision-making in this context is a huge challenge. For athletes, they often see hazing not only as a way to achieve team bonding, but also to encourage "toughness" which, in the right context, is a useful virtue for an athlete to possess. And it may be possible that, without guidance, athletes make an illogical leap between what challenges a coach imposes on players to instill toughness and acts of hazing that they impose on their own teammates. Maybe they just can't think of a better way to create team bonding. Or possibly, they see growth as coming only through unadulterated hardship or punishment. Initiating new players into a team thus becomes about fear and power, not about love of the game or respect for individuals.

I recently read David Wroblewski's 2008 novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, a wonderful and, at times, gut-wrenching read. And please know that I am in no way equating the training of dogs (a major theme of the novel) with the molding of young athletes, but this passage jumped out at me:

"She didn't think that the lessons from dog training always transferred to people, but it was the nature of things that if you punished anyone, dog or boy, when they got close to a thing, they'd get it in their head the thing was bad. She'd seen people ruin dogs too many time...Not finding a variation on the same task, not coming at things from a different angle, not making the dog relish whatever it was that had to be done, was a failure of the imaginations." (p. 298)

Imagination, mixed in with some empathy and respect for others, might be a key in breaking the chain of hazing.

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