A fraternity hazing story—yes, amazing as it seems, there are still hazings—raises the persistent ethical issue of whether a victim is responsible for his own mistreatment if he consents to it. Even if he shares responsibility, however, his consent does nothing to reduce the ethical failings of the abusers, or those of the irresponsible authorities who presided over a sick campus culture.
Michael Warren is an African American who was the only black pledge of the Alpha Delta Omega fraternity at Hartwick College (in Oneonta, New York). His potential “brothers” locked him in a bathroom with other pledges for hours, where they were subjected to ear-splitting music and strobe lights; he was forced, he says, to dress like a pimp, a humiliating bit of racial stereotyping; and, shades of the evil Omega Theta Phi fraternity in “Animal House,” was paddled so hard that he needed medical treatment (“Thank you, sir, may I have another?”). Warren complained, and found himself a pariah on campus, making him so uncomfortable that he gave up his scholarship to transfer to Hofstra. Now he is suing Hartwick, and his lawyer is arguing that his mistreatment by the fraternity “may have ruined his life.”
Well, I doubt that. It is more likely that it saved his life, since he presumably learned some of the essential lessons of Phillip Zimbardo’s “The Lucifer Effect,” in which the author describes the dangers of handing over your values and autonomy to a group in the interest of security and peer acceptance. He also prescribes strategies to avoid falling into this trap (or ending up in a locked bathroom with a bleeding rear end), of which I would summarize the most relevant to Warren’s plight as:
- Accept full responsibility for your actions.
- Assert and protect your individuality.
- Recognize the courageous act in support of ethical values, and be willing to perform it.
- Be prepared to oppose authority if necessary.
- Refuse to forfeit independent judgment in pursuit of group acceptance.
- Be alert to deceit, misrepresentations, “spin” and euphemisms.
- Recognize and reject rationalizations for unethical conduct.
- Look beyond the moment.
- Never sacrifice personal freedom out of fear and a desire for security.
- Be vigilant against the power of cognitive dissonance.
Does Warren share culpability for his own abuse by submitting to the hazing and allowing the sadistic frat fools to go as far as they did? Of course he does. He could have refused to continue, he could have said no. But the effect of peer pressure and the desire to please groups is astonishingly powerful, and Zimbardo, who was one of the behavioral scientists who organized the infamous and frightening Stanford Prison Experiment, cautions that very good people can find themselves agreeing to participate in horrible acts, even against themselves. An upsetting number of comments on the web about Warren’s lawsuit suggest that he is a wimp, trying to blame others for his own stupidity. It is an ignorant reaction. he shouldn’t be relieved of any responsibility for what happened, but he walked into a complex psychological environment that included his own insecurities as a minority student seeking security and acceptance, the corrupting influence when some individuals have power over another, and the sick ethical culture at Hartwick. He subjected himself to powerful forces that have made older and wiser people act ways that contradicted their most heartfelt principles, and if he had not been surrounded by students whose ethics alarms were malfunctioning, nothing bad would have happened to him. When someone who is weak, insecure, gullible, naive, sick, confused, pressured, foolish, needy or desperate agrees to be mistreated, it cannot relieve those who receive his consent from the ethical accountability of mistreating him.
Apparently the college has expelled one student and suspended six others. Too little, two late: I’d like to see Hartwick held liable in the lawsuit. The fraternity itself and the frat members involved, who are also being sued are bi-products of an irresponsible and ethically reprehensible institution.
For Hartwick College has an absurdly long history of hazing abuses, and had an obligation to stop them long before Michael Warren became another victim. In 2006, three members of another fraternity forced a pledge to do sit-ups and push-ups in broken glass and urine-soaked garbage, leading to the arrest of the perpetrators. Also in 2006, two pledges at yet another frat were treated for alcohol poisoning and freshman members of the lacrosse team complained that they were forced to strip naked and drink a keg of beer at an initiation ritual. In 1997, a student got so drunk at a frat party, he wandered off alone and drowned in a river. These are just the incidents we know about.
Warren and the frat sadists are still learning about how to be adults, and it is part of a college’s job to instill them with sound values and protect them from their own inevitable foolishness and bad judgment. Instead, Hartwick’s leaders stood by and allowed a dangerous and unethical culture of cruelty and peer exploitation to fester on campus, creating the conditions that led Warren, and doubtless others, to physical and emotional harm.