Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Hazing and Miss America

I’m breaking my own rule of commenting on something before all the facts are out.  Because it’s National Hazing Prevention Week, and this story is very timely.

Miss America is in some hot water.

I’m not a big fan or supporter of the Miss America pageant, and think it’s kinda silly.  But, it’s an institution in our culture and has a strong following.

It was revealed earlier in the week that the recent winner of Miss America - Kira Kazantsev 
 – was removed from her sorority (Alpha Phi at Hofstra) because of some behavior related to hazing.  She claims she was removed for an inappropriate joke about hazing that was always intended to be only a joke.

She admits she hazed pledges in her sorority, but to a “lesser” extent than some media reports.  She was also hazed, and admits that it was a part of the culture of the organization (and the entire Greek community at Hofstra). 

It does appear to me that she still has some learning to do when it comes to the impact of hazing and why it should never be tolerated, no matter how severe.

Now, what I’ve seen in social media (and from many professionals in fraternity and sorority life) is a take-down of this young woman for these actions.  The internet outrage machine is calling for her crown.

Let’s remember some key things.

There are people who work in the fraternity and sorority industry who were hazed, and hazed pledges themselves.  There are speakers and writers who oppose hazing now because of their own stories of falling victim to a culture of hazing.  You’re reading one right now.

The line that connects all of these stories is regret.  And realization.  Realization that hazing is not harmless fun, but can be damaging instead.  Realization that hazing eats away at a fraternity culture and creates the very apathy it supposedly solves.  This realization may come through quiet reflection, or a loud embarrassing spectacle.  This realization may come at age 18, or at age 23, or much later.

There is an educational journey in regards to hazing and that is why events like National Hazing Prevention Week exist.  We accept that convincing undergrads who are currently living in a hazing culture to change is hard and time-consuming work. 

And now we have a very public situation in which a young woman is going through that same education (and yes, sometimes it has to put right in front of one’s face in order for it to click), and the public reaction doesn't seem very patient.  True – she was a hazer.  True – she made big mistakes.  Perhaps true – her integrity isn’t as strong as advertised.

Let’s remember that hazing – namely in high school and college – is largely an act committed by young people who are ignorant of the impact (less so than a decade ago, but still ignorant).  Obviously the goal is for hazing never to occur.  But where it does, most involved are not depraved or willfully malevolent.  Most just don’t get it, but can get it, and that’s where we do our work.  We are an industry of educators, are we not?

Maybe that calls on us to rise above the indignation Olympics that always accompany stories like these.

Perhaps more information will come that will change my mind, but until then, I’m going to accept Ms. Kazantsev’s comments about now including hazing prevention in her platform as truth.  From her blog:
Now that I’m 2 years removed from that experience at the sorority, I’ve learned what healthy relationships are, and can better speak to what young girls entering college should avoid and it has further developed my platform, “Love Shouldn’t Hurt: Protecting Women Against Domestic Violence.”
I’m also proud to say that Alpha Phi Theta Mu of Hofstra University is an upstanding organization that has completely abandoned these practices and I’m incredibly proud of the work they do as an organization.

She can do a whole lot of good on this issue, and I’m interested to see her try.  Maybe she can start with the Miss America Organization itself, who issued a very disappointing statement that didn’t seem to acknowledge the gravity of the hazing issue. 

I’m not sure how I wanted the Miss America Organization to respond, but what they’ve done so far is pretty empty.  Should they fire her?  Let’s imagine they did.  It would send a message, but probably not a lasting one.  The issue may be better served by pressing her throughout this year to carry the anti-hazing message wherever she goes. 

Perhaps, we anti-hazing advocates found a new ally in the strangest of places, and she wears a crown.