The Culture of Hazing
In the nearly 30 years I’ve lived in Thailand, not a year has passed without a story from a Thai university where the ritualized hazing of juniors by seniors produced casualties every year. Some students die. Others spend time in ICU. Others grin and bear and the scars are internalized. It is against the law in Thailand. But the law is not enforced. Hazing continues as a tradition in many Thai universities.
Bangkok Post editor Umesh Pandey in an excellent opinion piece on hazing asks why the tradition of hazing continues in Buddhist Thailand and why the Thai military government with its extensive powers doesn’t intervene to end a practice that many feel is degrading and belongs to a feudalistic past.
The two questions are closely connected. But answers take us much further back than feudalism and beyond the narrow confines of Thai culture.
To find an answer is to these questions is a journey through time to look at our origins. Humans like chimpanzees are unique species that Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson in Demonic Males explain that intentionally seek our victims, killing and mutilating the helpless despite pleas for mercy. Like chimpanzees, we carry a reputation for political murders, beatings and rape. Again like chimpanzees we are obsessed with status and rank. We share the same Chimpanzee emotional pulse that beats with a steady stream of pride.
Male pride fuels conflict and war and the competition for status amongst other prideful driven males. When there is conflict group loyalty becomes of central importance. The techniques, practices and rituals that increase cohesion of the group forge a division between ‘us’ and ‘them’ worldview. Racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism are the collateral fallout in the formation of such groups. The ‘other’ is subject to being dehumanized, demonized until they fall outside the moral laws such, as not killing doesn’t apply to them. Our species is fine-tuned in defining mental states perfected to discriminating against, cheating, demeaning, abusing, enslaving and killing outsiders.
Hazing of university students is part of a tradition of forging intragroup solidarity of an in-group. The hazing ritual is an example of what Ernest Becker (Escape from Evil) labels ‘rites of passage’ where a person symbolically dies and is reborn as a member of the group.
It is not uncommon to have hazing justified as instilling pride and solidarity. Hazing in universities are markers of rank, status and pride. Seniors demand submission and obedience from juniors. Hazing is consistent with the values of a military culture of command and order. Like in the military, university students are compelled to wear uniforms.
A senior student uses hazing to compel submission to a group as a demonstration of group loyalty and belonging. Soldiers don’t question orders from an officer; a junior at university doesn’t question an order of a senior. When a recruit dies in boot camp, this is mostly viewed as part an unfortunate part of a necessary process. Training for warfare is a dangerous business. Going to university isn’t generally viewed as boot camp. But submitting to the hazing ritual is induction into a military type group where the bonding requires the lowering of self-esteem to the group as the price of admission.
As hazing aligns with military culture and values, the idea that a military government would dismantle university hazing is as likely as expecting senior generals to endorse pacifism. It’s not what they do. It’s not what they value or believe in. It is alien to their culture of rank, status, command and control.
Hazing is an example of domination values inside a subculture. As a long-time observer, I find a large amount of tolerance for domination practices designed to create intragroup solidarity and reinforcing power and authority. Correspondingly, there is a fear that removing a technique traditionally used to demonstrate solidarity would weaken the effectiveness of the group by undermining its commanders. And once weakened, outsiders, those enemies lurking under the bed, will emerge and slaughter the unorganized group of freethinkers. Why? Because the seniors can no longer ensure that their command and control system can be evoked. Primates are emotionally bonded to an alpha. Logic isn’t part of the operational control system. Fear is.
If your universities, schools, and civil services, all in their uniforms, with their ranks and status assigned, and the command structure communicated and understood, those in authority can deter, dissuade, coerce, threat, exile or disappear all challengers. That’s the implicit message that emerges from Thai culture. The millions in uniform are emotionally invested in command and control as a mechanism to maintain order and stability. If you eliminate hazing, the argument is this is the slippery slope to disorder and instability. Rituals like hazing are bonding exercises. Patronage system is premised on the culture supporting intergroup bonding.
Before the Enlightenment, the Age of Reason, the Age of Scientific process, this template would have been nearly universal. It has only been in the last 500 years, that the West allowed a group of thinkers, artists, and intellectuals to challenge the prevailing primate domination model, which includes rituals such as hazing. In this short period, authority and the beliefs on which legitimacy has been based, have been questioned, challenged, disobeyed, and discarded. We have moved from the logic of sacrifice to the logic of modeling, experimenting, and testing. The two types of logic are in conflict.
We are living in age still attempting to adjust to the damage the scientific revolution has done to traditional authority, beliefs, and rituals. Not all cultures have gone through the Enlightenment stages. Thailand is an example. Twenty-five years ago I wrote a book titled Heart Talk, about the jai or heart phrases in the Thai language, showing how the absence of Enlightenment values has continued to shape Thai thinking.
China is an example of a cultural system based on traditional authority, beliefs and rituals (calling it ‘communist’ is highly misleading). Like Thailand, China seeks to deal with scientific thinking by placing it inside a seal cultural container as if it were radioactive material. Only a few are allowed inside, and they aren’t allowed free access to the outside culture. And in a way, they are right. The products of the scientific culture are difficult to separate from the understanding and use of the culture that allowed and encouraged the kind of thinking platform needed to invent for the latest technology. There are no senior people who forces juniors into muddy ponds to show their loyalty before allowing them access to the labs. The West doesn’t allow or condone hazing of first year science students at universities such Oxford, Cambridge, MIT, or Harvard. Enlightenment freed students from hazing and these are the people who went on to become scientists.
The Thais and Chinese military cultural authorities are betting they can have the best of both worlds. Command and control over its best and brightest. This means a group of best and brightest that obeys and never question authority and yet can switch off their submission to authority to create original and creative works of art, science, and technology. Is this best of both worlds possible to achieve? Can there be a narrow and cordoned off creative space that does not leak into and contaminate the officially sanctioned and militarized culture of submission to authority?
As there are no Thai universities in the top 100 universities in the world, this may be a clue to consider.
A testable hypothesis: Is there a correlation between an entrenched command and control military governing system adapted and modified in an educational system and the absence of human rights enforcement? Or is human rights an emergent set of values from the Enlightenment that have created a feedback loop based on free speech and assembly, allowing for the free-flow of ideas and information essential for additional breakthroughs in scientific understanding of the world? I suspect the human rights problem outside of the Enlightenment cone of light is cultural. The seeds need a certain cultural, societal and historical soil to grow. At a time when human rights is in retreat in the West, there is less pressure for places like Thailand to adopt West cultural artifacts that are inherently alien to its culture.
The hazing rituals found inside Thai universities are a reflection of the broader cultural values and the system of governance. There is a law outlawing hazing already on the books. But this isn’t about the law. It’s about the culture. Command and control, loyalty and obedience, and group solitary and its this hand of cards that wins in any political poker game played in Thailand. There is no indication that game is going to change any time soon.