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When a club initiation becomes hazing

<h5>Whig Hall, where PDP held initiations in 2021</h5>
<h6>Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Whig Hall, where PDP held initiations in 2021
Angel Kuo / The Daily Princetonian

The following is a guest contribution and reflects the authors views alone. For information on how to submit to the Opinion Section, click here.

In popular culture, hazing is often associated with alcohol and Greek Life — yet it exists in different forms as well. Hazing, defined by the University, includes “indifference or disregard for another person's dignity or well-being,” specifically “demeaning behavior.” I believe I experienced hazing last year, when I went through Princeton Debate Panel (PDP) initiations. My experience with PDP leads me to worry that other clubs may have their own versions of repulsive initiation “traditions.” Yet there is very little open discussion of hazing on campus, and those who go through it often choose to stay silent. By sharing my own experience in more detail, I hope to help the community recognize that some “traditions” are unacceptable, deeply harmful, and must be stopped.

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I was one of about 20 students who joined PDP in Fall 2021. We were invited to a “second round of tryouts,” which was just a cover for initiations. The initiations last year were governed by a six-page document that planned the evening minutely. Once I became a PDP member, I saw this document, along with emails and registration forms available on the PDP’s shared drive and listserv. Emails dating back to 2016 refer to the fact that they “want as little in writing as possible” about the initiations process, suggesting that traditions that could count as hazing were already in place six years ago. 

In the initiation guide for 2021, members were instructed to: “Be stern, be mean, be judgmental … scare them, make them think this is a serious second round of tryouts.” Humiliation was apparently the core goal. Members asked us questions about international politics, the humanities and the social sciences, but no matter how we answered, they found ways to belittle us and our answers.

We were led from activity to activity, blindfolded, and badgered if we resisted. After all, the initiation guide instructs members: “MAKE SURE [the initiates] ARE BLINDFOLDED BETWEEN STATIONS” and “Be scary … Be annoyed if they don’t take it seriously.” The initiation guide also instructed members to put stickers on us in order to “evaluate” us and give us scores, without revealing this was not a serious tryout. I remember seeing scores on me when peeking out from underneath my blindfold. Even more bizarrely, PDP has a history of asking members to serve as decoys among the initiates, described in previous years as “a mole (who gets cut in round 2 of tryouts and storms out emotionally).” After witnessing someone storm off during my initiations, an existing member told me that this person had been a decoy. 

The purpose of the initiations is no secret: to “make the frosh feel smol,” in the words of a former PDP officer in an email to the club (“smol” being internet slang for the word “small”). Throughout the process a hierarchy was built: old members over new initiates. For example, the initiation guide instructs members to “bark” questions at initiates. I was guided around initiations by a handler and expected to obey the instructions of existing members, no matter how ludicrous or humiliating it seemed. The scores they wrote on us were a concrete manifestation of this hierarchy. Some may argue that hazing is a way of bringing a group closer together, but establishing a hierarchy between class years does nothing to bring a group closer together — it pushes a group apart.

Being hazed by PDP was a stressful experience for me. The moment I entered initiations, I was barked at for disobeying the order to be blindfolded. I felt angry and frustrated. Others told me they felt the same way. The author of the initiation guide themself even alludes to how intimidating aspects of the event were: “I still remember them [from last year] I was so traumatized.” Bonding through a ritual intended to be terrifying not only leaves a bad taste in the mouth of the initiates, but may also spark rumors that frighten off future members. This is not in the interest of the organization.

So if hazing has no benefits, why does PDP continue to engage in it? There may be another reason at play. Hazing robs the initiates of their capacity to make rational decisions about their continued participation in PDP. After the disgraceful night, I contemplated leaving PDP many times, only to be beset by the fear that if I did, I may have suffered in vain. Later, when I had a moment to breathe, I recognized this as an instance of the sunk cost fallacy — the idea that just because you have already lost, you should continue on a losing endeavor. PDP leadership bombarded us with unreasonable demands to attend training sessions and tournaments. They took advantage of the emotions that the hazing stirred up to convince new initiates that, after going through the shared initiations experience, they couldn’t back out now. To this day, many relatively inactive PDP members staff the tournaments that PDP hosts. Perhaps, like I did, they fear that they will be expelled from the group otherwise, and getting through the hazing will have been in vain.

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Members of PDP are clearly aware of this, with one PDP member explaining in an email to the PDP listserv that initiations are the reason “why the freshman class tends to be very engaged, indeed, the most engaged out of any PDP year … why people staff tournaments even if they quit.” The member calls this effect “a higher sense of group identity,” yet all it is is a warped form of manipulation.

After initiations, I was puzzled as to why nobody stood up against the hazing conducted by PDP. After all, that “initiations” is a euphemism for hazing is hardly a secret. In an email sent to the PDP listserv on Sept. 1, 2020, an officer referred to “initiations” as “the typical ‘round 2 of tryouts’ hazing.” At the post-initiations party, I recall vividly that I was asked by an existing member if I had been “hazed too hard” and assured that I would get to haze the new initiates from the Class of 2026 — as if getting to perpetuate the foul tradition makes it better. I suspect that other members are nervous about exposing the hazing precisely because of the culture of conformity that hazing fosters. Thus, hazing perpetuates itself.

Some members of PDP have maintained that “initiations” are not “hazing.” After all, as one PDP member wrote to me, initiations are “opt-out” and “frosh are supposed to be told participation is voluntary in all aspects.” This is simply false. The event is billed as another round of tryouts — an event that cannot be opted out of if one wishes to join the club. The initiations instruction document at no point reminds members that initiates have the right to opt-out. It suggests that members create an “intimidating” culture that necessarily scares initiates from excusing themselves. From the start, PDP members cultivated a stressful environment for me; they used their power as the judges to make me feel that I had no control. Those are not the characteristics of an optional event — that’s hazing.

No student group should be allowed to haze its members, especially not a group that has a monopoly on an activity like PDP does over debate. It’s not too much to ask that groups allow students to join in a welcoming and open manner.

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This year, PDP has said in an email to their listserv they hosted a straightforward “celebration.” The point of this piece is not to condemn whatever PDP did in recent days. I don’t know what they did, though I suspect they did not repeat the mistakes of last year, if only because they are under pressure after I brought these allegations to the campus community’s attention last summer via listserv email. However, I do worry that other clubs on campus may engage in similar hazing practices, and perhaps that it may return to PDP unless we actively oppose it. 

In the wake of an amended New Jersey anti-hazing law, Princeton’s updated standard for hazing includes penal measures not only for students who run the event but also those who willingly participate. If we permit hazing to continue, we also bear responsibility for what happens to our fellow students. If we want to eliminate hazing from our community, we must break our silence and expose it wherever it rears its ugly head.

Aybars Önder is a junior from Turkey majoring in philosophy.  He can be reached at aonder@princeton.edu.

Editor’s note: In the process of publishing this piece, the ‘Prince’ took several steps to corroborate the author’s account, including reviewing emails and documents referenced in the piece. The ‘Prince’ could not independently verify the author’s specific experiences at PDP initiations. The paper has solicited a response from PDP and has not received one at the time of publication.

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