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An Interview With Hank Nuwer - Part 1

When Rites Become Wrongs

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The Hazing Reader

The Hazing Reader

Photo © Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the author of a book on hazing entitled High School Hazing: When Rites Become Wrongs (ISBN 0-531-16465-9). I am grateful to him for answering my questions. If you have a question for Mr. Nuwer, please post it in the Forum for the benefit of all. - Robert Kennedy

Hazing in American SocietyHazing seems to be considered a rite of passage by American society. Why do people feel that demeaning another person somehow makes them a better person?

Hank Nuwer: I think relatively few people (granted, there are some) are so bent in the psyche that they would go after a newcomer to demean that person just to crush that teen's spirit. So from my research I'd look for self-deception in the person demeaning someone else during hazing. That we are hazing for the good of the victim is a lie hazers tell themselves that they really want to believe--even if it is exposed and found to be as ridiculous or as hurtful as it often is. If we are hazers on a sports team we say, "we're doing this to toughen you up, to make sure you belong in the trenches with us, to keep a tradition alive, and to preserve unity and our team's winning ways." Schools are not military groups like Navy Seals or Canadian Airborne, and even those groups (I think) could be equally successful without the brutal initiations that sometimes get made public. What hazing at the secondary school level does, of course, is bring everyone down to the same low level instead of bringing everyone up through positive team rituals.

I have felt for a long time that the entertainment and sports industries glorify violent behavior, even giving the impression that it is somehow the norm and quite acceptable. Do their activities contribute to hazing or is hazing strictly a local activity perpetuated by local traditions and customs?

Hank Nuwer: As someone who played quite a bit of ball and even played two minor league baseball games on a magazine assignment, I should start by saying I love sports and respect coaches. One of my baseball coaches was a lifelong mentor for me, and so I think sports often has positive effects on children and young adults. My take on the situation from years of covering it for my books, as well as my reading of authors such as Peggy Reeves Sanday and, especially, Laura Robinson is that some sports such as youth hockey not only have too much violence on the field...but off it, too. And this gets inflamed by violent parent-spectators, a minority of unfit coaches, and player-baiting fans without class. But too often, physical and psychological abuse in many forms is today connected with youth sports. That has to change. The values of the culture need to change. No more can we have low-level treatment of problems or the taking of punitive actions just to pacify the media and public.

Do I think sports is overemphasized to a dangerous degree? Yes, it is one of the problems of our current media-saturated culture. But self-awareness is a start. And we must not forget that there are people IN athletics who won't tolerate violence or abuse of any kind. This may not be solved in the next five years or even ten, but certainly we must solve the problem...and above all not be a person who adds to the problems by shrugging off hazing as "part of sports." The Alfred University survey and media reports are showing us that hazing in athletics can get out of hand and end up to be literally sexual abuse or physical assault. I'm hoping that my books Wrongs of Passage (for adults) and High School Hazing (for young adults) can take what I've learned from experts, simplify the complex info, and help curb the problem. We must educate ourselves about what hazing is before we can lessen its abuses and frequency. If we try curbing hazing without understanding it, we end up calling some things mistakenly hazing that actually are bullying or some other offense. I should close by saying I am part of the media I criticize and had to change my own attitudes toward hazing and media excesses--we all can stand some educating, and I know I have lots more to learn even after many years of studying the problem.

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