HAZING | ©2022 PBS.org

HAZING | ©2022 PBS.org

“Hazing,” the term for initiation rites to college fraternities and sororities, is viewed by many as a stressful but playful rite of passage. Instead, it is often violent, humiliating, sometimes even lethal.

HAZING, a documentary by filmmaker Byron Hurt, premieres on PBS’s INDEPENDENT LENS on Monday, September 12. Hurt, who has been through the fraternity system and was both in turn hazed and a hazer, now condemns the practice.

In his film, Hurt speaks with survivors of hazing, and with friends and family of those who died. There are cases of beating-caused deaths and paralysis, a drowning none of the witnesses will discuss, fatal alcohol poisoning, and deadly alcohol-related accidents.

One of HAZING’s interview subjects is Brent McClanahan II, a former Cal State Bakersfield student who pledged Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity (fraternities and sororities are often referred to as “Greek letter organizations” or “the Greek life”). McClanahan sustained permanent injuries, nerve damage and impaired mobility after repeated beatings during his hazing experience.

Hurt and McClanahan speak with ASSIGNMENT X on a Zoom call about HAZING, shortly after PBS’s Q&A Zoom Q&A session for the Television Critics Association press tour.

ASSIGNMENT X: In HAZING, you discuss how both the infliction and suffering of violence is seen as a test of masculinity. But in the film, violence also seems to be a problem in sororities, where presumably, whatever they’re trying to live up to isn’t masculinity. So, what besides masculinity do you think is going on here?

BYRON HURT: Well, I think it goes back to this issue or notion of belonging, passing a series of tests that show that you have the commitment required to belong to that group. I think those are places where hazing cultures overlap one another when it comes to gender. Although I will say that, at least with Black Greek letter organizations, fraternities and sororities, there are many sororities who borrow from some of the hazing rituals and practices that the men participate in.

There’s been this evolution in the ways in which sororities haze their pledges that look very similar, to the ways that boys and men haze, just like we see in American culture how there are some women who want to show that they are just as tough as men. In fraternity and sorority culture, you have sorority members who want to show and prove that they are equally as tough as the guys. I think that Michelle Guobadia in our film underscores that when she talks about her experience when she went through a joint session with fraternity members. She wanted to prove that she was just as tough as the men when she was pledging, and also, when she was hazing. So, I think that there’s some overlap there.

AX: Do you think part of the problem is the same as in some other abuse situations, where people who have been abused seek to contextualize what they’ve been through by perpetrating it themselves, which in their minds helps to justify it? It’s like, “This was good for me, and now therefore this is going to be good for somebody else, and I’m going to be a conduit for it”?

BRENT McCLANAHAN II: Well, growing up, it was something that was definitely in my household. There was something that was definitely shown to me, in my youth. My father, who was a Dean of Pledges, he was at the highest peak of making sure that everybody falls in line when they’re on line [of doing the hazing] or pledging with the pledges. So, some of the things that I witnessed, in my mind, it was, “Okay, this is what it’s supposed to be.” So, a lot of people would be getting paddled – I thought that was normal, growing up.

The men that were around were very aggressive, but they told me this is the way it’s supposed to be. So, in my mind, when I went through my process, I figured, “Hey, this is what’s supposed to happen, this is how it’s supposed to happen.” Because when I was younger, that’s all I knew. So, I feel like in a sense, yes, this is something that happens they think is okay. Because even [fraternity] members that I knew when I was younger that knew that this [permanent injury] happened to me disowned me, because the situation is common, so they don’t want to admit that that was something that they were a part of, that I witnessed growing up.

AX: People are still pledging to the fraternity that you pledged to and then were injured in during hazing. Do the new pledges view what was done to you as this unusual accident, like getting struck by lightning, or do the people pledging have any sense this could happen to them?

McCLANAHAN: Well, I know that I am the guy that was struck by lightning. It’s very rare, or seldom, that anybody that’s part of that fraternity wants to hear about a whistleblower, or someone who’s come out and spoke about hazing. So, it’s almost like I’m the bad guy, or I’m the big bad wolf. I was the victim, but instead, they almost made me seem like I’m the oppressor, and so, it’s a tough situation [laughs].

HURT: I think that fraternity members, or sorority members, or anyone who participates in hazing, whenever you see a story where somebody dies, and [the victim is] not a part of your chapter, or they’re not a part of your organization or your team, you just think that they did something wrong, they just don’t know how to do it right, they don’t know how to pledge people right, they don’t know how to haze people right. It’s “something about what they did wrong that is separate and apart from the way we do things.” It’s a weird kind of compartmentalization that goes on, where you see it happening over here, but you just never think or believe that it’s going to happen close to home, where you live, and so, you just dismiss it as almost a freak accident, if you will.

AX: From what you show in HAZING, it seems like the fraternities and the sororities are almost set up to be LORD OF THE FLIES, in a way, where you have relatively young people who are in charge of the hazing, supervising the pledges, who are even younger, without any more experienced adult supervision. Maybe a lot of the problems could be addressed if an alumnus were in a more hands-on supervisory position. Do you think resistance to that is because of tradition, do you think it’s that the alumni don’t want to get their hands dirty once they’ve gotten out of college? Do you think that they feel that if the young people aren’t left to their own devices, they won’t learn what they’re supposed to learn?

HURT: I think it’s all of the above. I think everything that you mentioned plays a role in what happens. You have older members of the organization who don’t want to be anywhere near any sort of pledging activities because of the legal ramifications.

The way things are set up now is that anybody who is even close to the space – if you are in the room, if you know of any hazing activities, if you are sponsoring a young pledgee who is being hazed, then you can be held financially and legally liable for those hazing activities. And so, as a result, older people who have more at stake – homes, jobs, careers, et cetera – tend to distance themselves or remove themselves from the situation, which leaves a leadership vacuum.

At the same time, though, you still have grown people who completely value their hazing experience, or they value the tradition of these rites of passage, and so, they perpetuate them. So, it’s not a matter of an adult being in a room or not, it’s a matter of the right adults being in the room, those who can really lead by making sure that the health and wellness of the young people who are seeking entry or membership to these organizations are not harmed. And so, I think that’s really where we need to focus. We need to focus on making sure that people have the leadership skills to intervene in situations like this, but to also create new ways of creating bonding experiences that are not harmful or detrimental to somebody’s health and well-being or, in the worst-case scenario, their lives.

McCLANAHAN: And to piggyback off of Byron, one of the things personally that I went through is that I noticed that a lot of the older members that were sixty-five and above, they would just stay out of it. They would check in, but then they would not be very relevant to what’s going on in the process-making. Whether they turned a blind eye, and they knew it was going to happen, I’m not sure.

But I do remember one night, and there was a pastor who came into our session, he was forty-eight years old, he’s supposed to be the Right Hand of God, and he beat on me, severely. So, it all depends on the person, as far as what you want to achieve out of this line that’s part of the session. In our pledge class, they wanted us to be beaten. There are other members that are like, “We shouldn’t do this,” but those ones are mostly the ones that don’t want to be a part of it, because they know something’s going to happen. And then something ends up happening.

HURT: Brent told that story when I interviewed him [for HAZING], and it struck me, because it really just speaks to issues around safety. So, you have a grown man, he was forty-eight, and someone who is a leader in the religious community, and Brent still didn’t feel safe. If you have a pastor that’s beating on you, what does that speak about your overall safety in the presence of other adults who are not members of the cloth?

I think that really goes back to what I said about having the right adults in the room, the right leaders in the room, who can steer the ship in a way that the forty-eight-year-old pastor did not. But I can attest to what Brent is saying. There are members of my fraternity, there are members of sports teams, there are members of marching bands or whatever, who really cling to these traditions, they cling to these hazing rituals, and they don’t want to let them go.

And a lot of times, what happens is that young people, they don’t necessarily want to go through that brutal hazing process – they are seeking the respect and the credibility of those older men. They want those older men to affirm something about them, to say that, “I am just as valuable as he is, and important as he is.” And so, I think that’s how this whole thing keeps going.

AX: One of the things HAZING talks about is the difference between Black and white fraternities and sororities. Do you think that the hazing is worse in one or the other, or that the white fraternities and sororities tend to get away with more?

HURT: Well, I think the statistics really bear out that the hazing is worse in white Greek letter organizations, particularly in white fraternities. There are a larger number of white hazing cases. The statistics bear that out, and the deaths are very, very common in terms of their similarities.

[With white fraternities and sororities], it’s usually alcohol-related deaths. A young man consumes far too much alcohol, and is sent down a flight of steps, and he falls down, he fractures his skull, and he dies, or he goes into some sort of coma for a length of time, or maybe has lifelong disabilities as a result.

With Black Greek letter organizations, there’s a lot of paddling, there’s a lot of physical violence, there’s a lot of verbal, emotional insults.

I want to say that one of the reasons that I wanted to make these racial distinctions is so that we can prescribe the right medicine to each one, if we know how these hazing rituals break down, and how each one contains harms or dangers that affect them differently. We can address that in a way that’s very different, but at the same time, equally as important as how we address the different kind of hazing that takes place in fraternities and sororities.

Not to just limit it to those two groups, but I think that we have to really understand the nuances within Greek life in order to provide the right medicine to heal the problem, you know what I mean? To make it healthier, for lack of a better word or a better phrase. So, I think that’s why the cultural and the racial distinctions are important.

AX: Is there an organized movement, and/or an organization, to address these problems, or is part of the purpose of the documentary HAZING to inspire something like that?

HURT: Well, I’ll say quickly, I know that there is PUSH – Parents United to Stop Hazing – is an organization that exists, that was created by one of the participants in the film. There’s StopHazing.org, there are a couple of other websites that are designed to provide education for people and resources, so that people can learn more about hazing culture.

We attempted to find a campus group that was working to end systemic hazing, but we just could not find any one group that was youth-led, that we could train our lens on. But those are just a couple that I know of. What I would like to see happen with this film is that those kinds of organizations, StopHazing.org, PUSH, and other organizations, will utilize this film to help advance their efforts to end hazing.

AX: Is everyone who is invested in stopping, or at least changing, hazing someone who has been through it or lost someone to it, or are any people involved who are complete outsiders to Greek letter life?

McCLANAHAN: We had a forum at Cal State Bakersfield, and there was a group that came on campus and brought up hazing. But I’ve only seen that forum, I haven’t really seen it anywhere else, so I’m hoping that the documentary will make a change in that, in those efforts.

HURT: There is an Abolish Greek Life movement that exists on many campuses, where there are students who are not a part of Greek life, who are responding to various incidents that have taken place on campus. This includes rape and sexual assault by fraternity members, not just hazing, but who really want to get rid of college fraternities and sororities, because of the systemic nature of these incidents. So, I could imagine that most of the people who are involved in that effort are non-members, but I would not be surprised if there were also members.

AX: And what would you both most like people to get out of HAZING the documentary?

McCLANAHAN: This documentary is the foundation of change. While there have been others who have been putting in a lot of work individually to start the process, and putting up websites, hopefully, this will be something that they can take and utilize in their efforts, and be able to continue the movement. This is something that’s been going on for a very long time now, and I would love for it to stop, hopefully in my lifetime. I’m hoping that the documentary becomes a beacon of hope for those that have none, and be able to just shine a light on this serious issue that gets overlooked every year.

HURT: I really want this film to give people permission to talk, to open their mouths and break through the silence, and I want the film to be a gateway for cultural change. I know that that’s hard. It’s hard for a film to change anything. It’s a documentary, and I don’t want to be grandiose in my thinking.

However, if this film could advance the conversation about hazing culture, if it could give people the space to talk about it in ways that they haven’t talked about it, because it’s such a taboo issue for people to address, to me, that would be a success. I hope that this film saves lives. I hope that many people watch this film, and they realize that they do have a real choice, and that they don’t have to accept the hazing that they are experiencing.

But more importantly, I hope that somebody who watches this film, who thinks that it’s okay to haze other people, makes a different choice, changes their stripes and says, “I don’t have to do this.” I think it’s time in our culture for young people to come up with new and creative ways to create bonding experiences, and really valuable relationships without this deadly form of hazing. If my film could be the pathway for that, then I will feel very successful.

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Article: Exclusive Interview with HAZING filmmaker Byron Hunt and Survivor Brent Mcclanahan on new PBS documentary

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