By Liz Drumheller
The following passage was taken from a Cornell University student’s essay on his experiences as a fraternity pledge: “We were not allowed to use the restrooms or ask for a water break, and if we needed one or the other we could pee our pants or pass out…we were not even allowed to brush our teeth, and if we were caught trying to sleep in a library, sneak back to our dorms or get food we would be punished severely” (Zwecker). The repulsive and horrifying physical and psychological abuse that thousands of individuals willingly subject themselves to each year is a goldmine for sociological study. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz felt similarly about the ritual of cockfighting in Balinese culture. Geertz discovered that the cockfight was not simply a gruesome pastime, but rather a cultural art form, one that could be “read” and analyzed, similar to a literary work. Geertz examined the cockfighting ritual and drew from it profound theories and novel insight on the Balinese culture itself, such as the significance of hierarchy organization, status, personal identity, masculinity, and the concept of “deep play,” or high-risk involvement in a group or activity with low resulting benefits. The application of Geertz’s analytical methods and framework reveals the same connection between hazing and American society. Through careful reading, hazing can be better understood as the dramatization of the deeply embedded sociological and psychological desire to achieve acceptance and to be given membership status within a group and within society.
One of the most important concepts in both the study of the Balinese cockfight and of hazing is philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s theory of “deep play,” as deep play in relation to societal rituals begs the question of why they exist in the first place. Deep play is essentially an undertaking whose risks are so high -and benefits so few- that those who involve themselves with it seem to do so irrationally (Geertz). Geertz examined the cockfighting as an example of deep play where the betting system blatantly works against participants, and yet they partake in it anyway, overthrowing all logic and even ignoring laws enforced to prevent the cockfights from occurring. Hazing is representative of deep play, wherein participants irrationally commit to a task whose risks are so often so great that they without doubt outweigh potential benefits. An article taken from NPR’s “All Things Considered,” for example, describes a young pledge who, after being ordered to chug from a five-gallon jug of water that was repeatedly refilled, collapsed, had a seizure, and then died (Korry). The question is, then, why participants involve themselves in deep play if they are in fact capable of understanding the risks involved, be they monetary or physical. According to Geertz, participants involve themselves because much more is at stake than potential losses or benefits:
It is in large part because the marginal disutility of loss is so great at the higher levels of betting that to engage in such betting is to lay one’s public self, allusively and metaphorically, through the medium of one’s cock, on the line. And though to a Benthamite this might seem merely to increase the irrationality of the enterprise that much further, to the Balinese what it mainly increases is the meaningfulness of it all. (434)
The process of involving one’s self in hazing is similar in that pledges literally lay themselves on the line and expect meaningfulness and bonding to ensue at some point. The extremity of the hazing process and its intrinsic connection to the public self cause pledges to perceive the process as having meaning, however tainted or obscure.
The root cause of deep play, in many cases, can be traced back to the significance of the group in society. Group situations are ever-present and have unquestionable power over the individuals within them. A specific commodity or activity, for example, is easily introduced into the mainstream due to the individual’s constant and subconscious attention to what others are doing around him or her—and it doesn’t take long for an individual to join in on the trend so as not to be left out.
A cockfight is what, searching for a name for something not vertebrate enough to be called a group and not structureless enough to be called a crowd, Erving Goffman has called a “focus gathering” – a set of persons engrossed in a common flow of activity and relating to one another in terms of that flow. (424)
As Geertz states, individuals are able to “relate” to one another in terms of a common group identity, which provides the reasoning behind the Balinese’s mass participation in the cockfighting ritual. Sharing a common identity, for instance the passion for cockfighting, relieves one of some of the pressures of expressing and/or maintaining personal identity within a crowd. Hazing functions similarly, as participants feel comforted by the very definite group that is a fraternity, and by the fact that their peers are also enduring whatever challenges have been set. Sociologist Irving Janis coined the term “groupthink,” which she defines as a “process in highly cohesive groups in which faulty decision-making arises as a result of a convergence of dynamics, including pressure for unanimity, suppression of individual moral objections, and degradation of outsiders” (Cornell). Janis’ theory suggests that the group dynamic results in the individual’s failure not only to perceive but also to consider alternative actions; there is comfort, safety, and assurance in groups because large numbers of people acting in similar ways give the individual the idea that there can’t be other—or better—options. The concept of “groupthink” explains why Geertz never had to mention a Balinese man who did not want or choose to participate in the cockfighting, and why so few individuals speak up against hazing when it begins to endanger themselves and others.
In addition to the focus on the self-versus-group theory, other concepts of personal identity are significant to the understanding of deep play. The idea of masculinity, for example, has an overwhelming presence in both the cockfighting and the hazing rituals. According to Geertz, a man’s masculinity and personal identification is directly—and inarguably—linked to his fighting cock, and when a man must represent his masculinity to the public, he will go to every extreme to enhance its appearance.
The intimacy of men with their cocks is more than metaphorical. Balinese men, or anyway a large majority of Balinese men, spend and enormous amount of time with their favorites, grooming them, feeding them, discussing them, trying them out against one another, or just gazing at them with a mixture of rapt admiration and dreamy self-absorption. (418)
In Balinese society, the cockfight is the most prevalent means by which a man is able to exert his masculinity, which is just as crucial a key to social acceptance in Bali as it is in the United States. Fraternity pledges are constantly being judged on their performance as males as well. Hazing activities for males are almost always challenging and dangerous on a physical level, where the male must prove that he can do however many pushups, chug however many containers of beer, and endure situations of severe temperature, for example being left out in the snow (Dahl). Society and the media create an overwhelming pressure for both men and women to conform to certain standards of masculinity and femininity, giving them the idea that if they stray from those standards, they will not be “socially acceptable” males and females. A fraternity is an extension of that set of standards for males, as it is stereotypically recognized as an institution in which athleticism, personal appearance, physical interaction with women, and alcohol are highly valued and collectively pursued by its participants. Fraternity pledges feel the pressure from both society and from fraternities, which explains their determined participation in grueling calisthenics, the dangerous consumption of alcohol, and other stereotypically “masculine” pursuits.
The concept of the self in relation to figures of authority also plays a very crucial role in an individual’s sense of belonging and acceptance within a group. Almost every group in society—large or small—has an authoritative figure that regulates, in some way, the group as a whole. Large companies have CEO’s , sports teams have captains, schools have principals and student body presidents, and even less official groups such as social cliques tend to have definitive leaders. Within the cockfight, too, there is an authority figure:
Likened to a judge, a king, a priest, and a policeman, he is all of those, and under his assured direction the animal passion of the fight proceeds within the civic certainty of the law. In the dozens of cockfights I saw in Bali, I never once saw an altercation about rules. Indeed, I never saw an open altercation, other than those between cocks, at all. (424)
Geetz emphasizes the lack of resistance when it comes to rules and regulations that the authority has set, which further represents the concept of the group and its collective adherence to a set of standards (Cornell). The ritual of hazing is also monitored by an authoritative figure, most often labeled “Pledge Master,” who is given full jurisdiction over pledges and the specific task by which he’ll test them (Zwecker). These authority figures represent an even deeper layer of the intrinsic desire to belong, because while the group embodies a set of standards to which one must adhere in order to gain acceptance, its leaders oversee the regulation of these standards, and therefore have full power to give—or deny—individuals acceptance or the right to participate. The pledge master or the cockfight’s umpire functions in the same way as other leaders of social institutions, be they admission officers determining college applicants’ merits, or a boss in deciding to fire or hire depending on an employee’s specific personal qualities. The pledge master, however, plays an even more dangerous role as a leader, being a crucial component of the “groupthink” mentality. Having been conditioned to believe in a certain set of standards relevant to leading the hazing process, the pledge master is just as wrapped up in the “groupthink” mentality, allowing him to abuse his authoritative powers because so many others have before him and yet no one has ever questioned or checked those powers.
Despite the potential danger involved with hazing, many people today argue in favor of it, contending that through trauma or adversity a group that thrives on an intensive bond can truly reach an adequate level of closeness. This theory makes sense, as anyone who has been through a significantly challenging or distressing situation with others understands what that resulting bond feels like. “Our ancestors survived by forming groups that had strong bonds. We are social creatures with needs for affiliation. Our innate drives for connection and preservation may contribute to practices such as hazing that are perceived to strengthen the ties between group members” (Cornell). This theory of “surviving” by forming strong bonds relates directly to philosopher Herbert Spencer’s theory of Social Darwinism, which “saw social evolution as a product of struggle between individuals” (“Social Darwinism”). According to Spencer’s theories, society can only improve by creating competition among individuals, who will in turn have to struggle to keep pace and survive within it. A fraternity operates in accordance with Spencer’s ideologies, in that each pledge class is intended to become bigger and better than the one before it. Current members, therefore, view each pledging process as the process through which they can “weed out” individuals who simply cannot compete to “survive” it. Both the theory of bonding through trauma and of the implementation of competition to ensure quality are longstanding, but with relation to hazing—and bringing in the “best” and most “close-knit” group of pledges—they become idealistic extremes, the excuses used by fraternity members to endlessly torment potential members. Of course in some rare cases the final product of hazing would be a set of individuals who have survived the competition and are uniquely bonded as a result of its adversities. However, hazing has become more intense and more lethal throughout its history, as pledge masters compete to leave behind the greatest legacy and the best stories (Zwecker). It is evident, therefore, that our society’s obsession with belonging and competing to be accepted has turned the hazing process into a dangerous ritual, which has been made a crime today in 41 states in the U.S. (“Study”).
Geertz’s model of analysis, wherein a society’s ritual can be “read” to better interpret its culture as a whole, can be applied universally. Upon careful examination of hazing, one will find that it can also be “read” as a literary text, on the subject of the importance of the individual’s desire to belong and to be accepted in society. The sentiments involved in the rituals of both the cockfight and hazing—when properly analyzed—can be very telling of why a society functions the way it does.
What the cockfight says it says in a vocabulary of sentiment—the thrill of risk, the despair of loss, the pleasure of triumph. Yet what it says is not merely that risk is exciting, loss depressing, or triumph gratifying…but that it is of these emotions, thus exampled, that society is built and individuals are put together. (449)
Rituals are constructed from a complex set of sentiments that can be found in the deeply embedded foundation on which a society is built. The combination of specific cultural themes, such as savagery, masculinity, and status rivalry, creates what Geertz calls a “symbolic structure” (450), which in return exemplifies that which the Balinese people both fear and value the most as a society. They engage in the deep play that is the cockfight because it is a deeper, much more meaningful cultural symbol and attachment than is apparent to the naked eye. The combination of themes such as the importance of the group and of the impression one makes upon his or her peers, the expression of masculinity, the perception of authority, and the savage qualities that are inherent in human nature create the ritual of hazing, which is much more than a component of the stereotypically crazy Greek party scene. A boy who will chug five gallons of water does so to gain acknowledgement and approval form the fraternity, which functions as an extension of the society as a whole, having power to control individuals and the choices they make by manipulating their deeply psychological and irrepressible desire to belong.
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