On Wednesday, January 31st, 2007 at 5:30 pm, initiation began for the Alpha Theta chapter of Tau Kappa Epsilon. From what I can remember, I and a couple of friends were rounded up from Reid and taken to the house. There, according to the notes I prepared for an article I almost published in April 2007, we were told to line up in rows and columns. Rotten or foul-smelling food was flung at us. A porn film on repeat set the ambiance. One of the active members of the house dressed as a screaming baby and bounced around to break up our order while we were yelled directions to keep in line. This is how it began.

Right now, I’m diving with my friend David in Sabah, Borneo. On Thursday, the Whitman Pioneer, student newspaper at Whitman College, published an article regarding allegations brought forth by Dan Hart about TKE initiation the prior year. I was quoted several times. The quotes are from a recorded Skype/phone interview I did with Pio Editor-in-Chief, Molly Smith, Wednesday morning in my current timezone. On a tip from a current TKE member, Molly contacted me on February 28th to learn about my experiences with TKE initiation four years ago. I feel what didn’t make it into the article is now worth publishing.

According to this year’s Whitman Student Handbook (I don’t have a copy of 2006-2007’s), hazing is “any activity of a physical or psychological nature that is degrading or humiliating to another person.” Whether you like it or not, this is our working definition. The handbook also has a short list of behaviors and activities Whitman College considers to be hazing. I experienced these:

  • Excessive fatigue resulting from sleep deprivation, physical activities, or exercise.
  • Assignment of activities that would be illegal or unlawful, or might be morally offensive to new members.
  • Verbal abuse, including “line-ups” and berating of individuals.
  • Forced or required clean-up work or labor created for new members.
  • Forced or required nudity or lewd behavior.

For me, the pivotal moment was Friday evening, February 2nd, 2007, a little while after opting out of what I have in my notes as a “cult-like ritual.” Of the couple dozen rules pledges were subject to, one was the requirement they address active members of the house by whichever name they had given themselves for the hour. One of the actives named himself “Mr. God” at dinner, approached me, and demanded I address him by his name. I refused.

My friends wouldn’t consider me all that religious. I was raised and confirmed Catholic, but think myself more agnostic than anything else. Spirituality, and everyone finding their own for themselves, is more important to me than religion. I am, however, quite against people abusing religion to create and reinforce oppressive power structures.

The active scolded me for not addressing him as “Mr. God” and demanded again. I refused again. At this point, he must’ve realized he overstepped his bounds, and I was refusing for some other reason than to be defiant. All of the pledges were quickly ushered out of the TKE dining room. Actives went upstairs to, I assume, discuss what just happened. This incident was my defining moment. I made the difficult decision to leave initiation (and left a couple of hours later after debriefing with the hegemons).

As a freshman, leaving initiation was synonymous with leaving my Whitman community. All of the strong friendships I developed over the previous four months were in some way affiliated with the Greek system. Out of almost 30 people in Jewett’s 2-West, I believe only two didn’t pledge to a fraternity. By leaving initiation, I single-handedly created a chasm between me and my closest friends, put my entire social life in the lurch, and demolished the start of my foundation for a successful four years at Whitman College.

Case in point: Sam Chasan, my freshman roommate and one of my best friends at the time, said this in support of the initiation process:

I say strong because initiation requires intense commitment by the active members. To those who wish to simplify, and view as negative the initiation practices of TKE, are doing a disservice to themselves. Take a second to look at the men you denigrate: they are your PEERS!! They are your WHITMAN classmates, teammates, group and club mates, ASWC representatives, and so on. Intelligent men. Compassionate men. They are men of character. Initiation is a carefully organized and executed series of events, orchestrated as it is to draw out intense emotions not often seen in our monotonous daily lives. It is unfortunate that those who walk out on initiation believe those emotions are categorically wrong.

On a long run along the Mazatlan waterfront during spring break that year, I listened to an Amy Goodman interview with Philip Zimbardo on Democracy Now! Philip Zimbardo is professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford and famously known for the Stanford Prison Experiment. Read through both links fully. The experiment randomly assigned 24 normal, middle-class, psychologically sound males into a mock prison environment, 12 as prisoners and 12 as prison guards. Their goal was to role-play the situation for two weeks. Zimbardo stopped the experiment after only six days because it had degraded to the point where prison guards were torturing prisoners. Only one person, an outsider, questioned the experiment’s morality, and this questioning brought its end. Everyone else had fully adopted their roles.

Zimbardo argues the Stanford Prison Experiment shows two things. First, situation is a powerful motivator. It can turn normally decent human being into characters they’re not, either positive or negative. As I listened to the interview, I drew a strong connection between why the prison guards acted as they did and why active members in the TKE house acted as they did. It wasn’t so much that they were inherently bad people; rather, the situation they were in had a strong influence on what they perceived to be normal behavior. The power of the situation.

Second, cognitive dissonance is an important concept for describing how these normally decent human beings can internally justify doing things they wouldn’t normally do, or that even go against their beliefs. Here’s a good Science Friday podcast on the subject. In the case of the Stanford Prison Experiment, it helps explain why the prison guards thought it alright to psychologically and physically torture inmates. And in the case of the 2007 TKE initiation, cognitive dissonance helps explain why pledges rationalized accepting the hazing as they did.

After understanding the situation in this new light, I was set on writing a piece for the Pio. I worked as the Photo Editor during my time at Whitman and Sophie Johnson, the editor at the time, said she would run it if I would write it. Obviously, it wasn’t published. I showed an early draft to one of the last people I felt I could talk to. She initiated Delta Gamma that year, said she would side with the TKE house because of the Greek system’s importance to her social life, and recommended I talk to Barbara Maxwell, Associate Dean of Students. Growing even more disenchanted with the Whitman experience, I did this instead. She convened a meeting with the intrafraternity council and I aired my grievances. From that, I don’t know what happened. If Dan Hart, whom I’ve never met, only recently came forth with similar allegations from a later year, I suspect not much changed.

Do the ends justify the means as Greek members say they do? I don’t know, I didn’t experience the ends. I do believe the means I experienced aren’t justifiable in any context. I also believe the activities of TKE’s initiation process, not necessarily its emotions as Sam mentions, are and have been in clear violation of Whitman’s policy towards hazing, as well as the moral standards of all those involved. A healthy dose of transparency, accountability, and courage will be required for genuine change.

A note: this is my personal weblog. I publish comments with a first and last name, verifiable email address, and whose substance tries earnestly to forward the conversation. Everything else will be marked as spam. Thank you.