By Jon Green
The discussion of hazing at Kenyon has broken down into two camps: students who pine for the College to treat them like adults by respecting their freedom to do as they please within their organization and administrators who prioritize students’ safety and the College’s protection from liability over such concerns. The result is an official zero-tolerance policy that is for the most part ignored by student organizations “because, I mean, come ON bro, seriously?” If the students were willing to admit that their first-years did not knowingly sign up for some of the more dangerous “value-imparting activities” that they are pressured into taking part in, then the administrators may be able to admit that banning capes and haircuts does not make us any safer.
Before this discussion can go any further we students must realize that “being an adult” does not mean having free reign to make dangerously stupid or negligent decisions; it means having the common sense to not make those stupid or negligent decisions in the first place. Moreover, when adults make similar stupid decisions they are blamed for “acting like children.” In this regard, it is unreasonable to expect the College to sit back and watch as pledges are pressured into binge drinking or forced to walk on broken glass. By the same token, administrators must realize that by defining everything as hazing they are defining nothing as hazing. If wearing capes is equated to forced binge drinking then how can anyone expect an organization to cease doing either? To rephrase, what does not qualify as hazing? Every time the administration punishes an organization for making their pledges wear yellow suits or dance in the Great Hall they are diminishing their policy’s legitimacy and discouraging students from reporting the hazing that can actually result in serious harm being inflicted upon a student.
The administration is faced with a difficult task when it is charged with regulating hazing; the activities that actually need to be regulated occur in secret and the activities that occur in the open are not all that dangerous. The administration relies on a system of reporting to be able police organizations that are hazing outside the administration’s monitoring jurisdiction. To this point, the administration must be able to create a policy conducive to student reporting if it hopes to be able to regulate hazing that does not occur out in the open. Currently, very little student reporting takes place, and it is not so hard to imagine why.
The broader a definition the administration takes with regards to hazing, the more difficult it becomes for students to discern where exactly the lines are. Just about anything can be called hazing if it is defined as “any action or situation, regardless of intent, that results in or has the potential of resulting in physical, mental, or emotional harm, discomfort, or distress to a group’s members or prospective members,” (Student Handbook, pg. 9). Sitting too long in one place has the potential to give me discomfort, but am I being hazed when I take my finals? Of course not. The danger in this is that when students are so readily able to reject the College’s definition of hazing they are left with no established or objective standard that they can rely on. When we do not know for sure what hazing is not then we will have a harder time determining what hazing is. If the administration is serious about creating an environment in which students feel comfortable reporting incidents in which they or others were put in harm’s way then it needs to whittle its definition of hazing down to something that does not include nearly all of the events in Freshman Orientation.
I struggle with this issue because while on the one hand when someone signs up for a pledging process it is reasonable to expect that they have some idea of what they are getting themselves into, 20-somethings (myself included) generally have a distorted perception of hazard. We drive fast, we jump off of tall things, we forget to get our flu shots, and when something goes wrong we are generally pretty good at realizing that we had it coming and accepting the consequences. However, just because we are willing to say, “whoops, I was wrong” does not mean that the administration can morally or legally abdicate their responsibility to attempt to prevent these hazards from occurring. This is especially true when our actions affect not only our classmates, but also the school as a whole. It is unreasonable to assume that students have no control over their situations in the pledging process, but it is also unreasonable to assume that they are fully competent evaluators of both their own and others’ risk and should be left free of administrative oversight.
Until both students and administrators concede that their current stances are establishing black and white arguments regarding an issue that is undoubtedly gray this campus will continue to struggle with hazing. Reaching a coherent solution is going to be difficult, but easier than students attempting to convince administrators to leave them alone and much easier than the administration attempting to convince the student body that their all-encompassing definition of hazing is correct.