A Hazy Process

Maxwell Gruver was only 18-years-old when he died a tragic yet preventable death. Opinions writer Jessy Mei examines the behavioral epidemic that claimed Gruver’s life and provides a way to end it.

Reading Time: 6 minutes

It is June of 2017. Maxwell Gruver is 18-years-old and ready to graduate from Blessed Trinity Catholic High School. His grandparents beam, and tears well up in his parents’ eyes as he ascends to accept his diploma. He has graduated, and he couldn’t be happier. Three months later, after giving his mother a final kiss goodbye, he is ready to leave the nest and embark on his own journey at Louisiana State University. He dreams of becoming a sports writer, having memorized all the existing football and baseball teams by heart.

But, Gruver’s new life comes abruptly to an end on September 14, 2017. His two younger siblings will never see him again. His beloved grandparents will never see him again. He will never become a sports writer, and the only work he’ll have published are works from his hometown, published before his death. Gruver died with a blood alcohol level of .495, a result of being forced to drink alcohol for being unable to answer questions about his fraternity accurately. Though this may seem like an extreme case of death by alcohol poisoning, it’s a case that has been seen far too many times, and it is one that is becoming more prevalent in our world.

Hazing, or the imposition of harsh or challenging tasks on one seeking initiation, typically into a sorority or fraternity, has been around since the 1800s. In recent years, however, there has been a drastic increase in the number of hazing-caused deaths—in fact, according to Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College who has closely monitored incidents of hazing over decades, 2017 was the peak of the number of hazing deaths in the past 40 years. With hazing at unprecedented levels, there has come a new urgency to address the ethics of hazing on college campuses.

Hazing promotes the tolerance of abusive behavior and pain to achieve a sense of belonging and conveys the idea that those who inflict pain or humiliation do it solely with the victim's best interests at heart. It establishes a power dynamic elevating the perpetrator and oppressing the victim, and sometimes, it seems to help the perpetrator cope with past trauma. Domestic abuse and hazing progress in similar ways, starting with subtly demeaning or deprecating comments and ultimately transforming into acts of violence. Thus, we must take a stand against hazing—not only to create healthier environments on college campus, but also to take down the culture surrounding domestic abuse. We can only begin to initiate change by changing our attitudes surrounding hazing and by acknowledging that it plays a major role in promoting abuse.

In the vast majority of hazing-related deaths, the causes of deaths are due to alcohol poisoning, or instability linked to excessive alcohol consumption. While it may seem clear that hazing should be avoided at all costs, it is not so clear as to why so many voluntarily walk into its arms despite the obvious dangers it poses. To understand this, it is crucial to understand that joining a sorority or fraternity for a “lifetime of sisterhood or brotherhood” yields great social and professional advantages.

During rush week, those interested in Greek life become acquainted with different sororities and fraternities, and some receive invites, or bids, to become pledging members of an organization. Once one becomes a pledging member, one becomes more likely to be subjected to hazing in order to prove one’s dedication and determination to join and secure a position in the sorority. Hazing is typically carried out for these main purposes: to eliminate those “not worthy” of joining the organization; to instill pride in “winning” the right to be a part of it; to imbue conformity, fear, and respect in a new class; or to serve as an outlet for pent-up anger from past trauma. When the hazing begins, it starts out small―pledgers are typically forced to cross-dress or complete insignificant or slightly humiliating tasks. This asserts the belief that the process will only be slightly painful, and “not too serious.” Most members decide to continue through the process at this point. However, with time, the intensity of the hazing drastically increases, and it advances into physical and psychological abuse. As Jo Hannah Burch, a student at Young Harris College who sued the school after her hazing experience, recounted, she was blindfolded and driven to a forest, where she was pressured to crawl through a frigid creek and do physically strenuous labor, while being spat at and taunted. Aldo Cimino, an anthropology lecturer at the University of California, claimed hazing is “fundamentally coercive [and] forces people to submit to behavior they wouldn’t normally be on board with.”

Despite the strenuosity of the labor and the disrespect pledges are forced to experience, there are indeed long-term benefits of going through hazing and being officially initiated into a sorority. As the result of a long and arduous initiation process, sororities are more exclusive, and they serve as great resources for one’s career goals. As Cimino puts it, “the costs―temporary discomfort and humiliation―pale in comparison to the potential benefits, which include prestige, a more active social life, and a social network that could help students later in life.”

Despite the overwhelming advantages of agreeing to being hazed, the negative effects of the hazing process outweigh the positives by far―hazing causes irreparable psychological damage to those who willingly subject themselves to it and promotes the culture of domestic abuse. Hazing undoubtedly goes hand in hand with abusive behavior and relationships, and it promotes the idea that when a partner is being abusive or causing the suffering of the other, it is ultimately worth it for love or a stronger sense of community. In an environment of domestic abuse, it excuses the abusive partner’s actions and sugarcoats issues with the false idea that “they have their best interests at heart.” Violence and abuse can never be justified with superficial and insincere love; hazing does just that, teaching submission and acceptance of pain for a “greater good.”

Though choosing to subject oneself to hazing and successfully being initiated into a sorority may reap great social benefits, hazing also strips away one’s sense of individualism for conformity and distorts one’s social interactions with others forever. Pledging members are pressured to adhere to the status quo, agree to treatment they would normally be strongly against, and lose their voices and ability to think and act for themselves, giving in to groupthink instead. As conformity and collective-decision making dominate the lives of pledging members, they may permanently be deprived of their sense of individuality and their ability to challenge societal norms. Such conformity minimizes conflict with the sorority and discourages “whistle-blowing” Also, the likelihood of notifying the authorities about the presence of hazing will be reduced, as the whistle-blower is immediately cast out and receives strong backlash for reporting hazing, as they are expected to silently agree with this culture.

When freshmen grow older and the hazed become the hazers, hazing promotes the idea that using violence to cope with having once been the victim of violence is justified. Burch described the girls who had particularly suffered the most as "so ready for the next semester...to do this to other people," he said. The cycle of abuse and mistreatment is perpetuated with every rush period, as those who suffered extensive emotional trauma become more likely to inflict the same type of damage to others. They feel a boost in self esteem and power as they do so, reflecting a twisted method of coping through developing sadistic tendencies.

Though humiliation and forcing others to experience trauma may indeed strengthen the bonds between a class of pledges who suffered abuse together, this just creates a stronger sense of bitterness, hatred, and division between the yearly classes. A true sisterhood and brotherhood is founded on sincere love and goodwill for all, not the idea of qualified love solely for those who do one’s bidding or agree to abuse and trauma. Hazing tears at the seams of true, sincere social relationships based on trust and distorts what may have been a Greek organization’s genuine attempt at a sense of community.

It is ironic that in an institution dedicated to producing the leaders of the future, virtues of conformity and yielding to established figures are simultaneously preached through sororities and fraternities. The initiated members who become hesitant to make decisions that may not be in the interest of veteran members are people who become afraid of taking risks and challenging authority in society. The message that hazing conveys runs dangerously against the goals of college and the pursuit of a higher education.

Gruver was only 18-years-old when he died a tragic yet preventable death due to alcohol poisoning. He had a bright future ahead of him and a life to look forward to when he was taken from this world by something so easily prevented. It didn’t have to happen, but it did because of the trivialized nature of hazing during the rush process. Hazing is never worth the “long term benefits;” it promotes and plays to larger themes of domestic abuse, submission, and conformity. By choosing not to be passive in addressing hazing, you can reinforce your sense of individuality and show others considering or undergoing the process that it should not be normalized. You can speak out against the culture of abuse and deter others considering it from enduring the abuse that too many have before. Either that, or you can leave others to face the same fate as Gruver.