Ask anyone you know their thoughts around hazing, and you’ll likely get a variety of astute yet conflicted responses. That’s not because there’s a question of whether inflicting bodily harm on someone, sometimes to the point of death, is wrong.
Rather, it’s the context surrounding it that people struggle with — the desire to fulfill a long legacy of Greek life in college, belong to a fellowship that is particularly tethered to the young Black academic experience, and chase a feeling of achievement after crossing over by any means.
The normalization of this experience, often considered an honor, is part of what makes it such a complicated topic to discuss and an even more entangled crime to prosecute.
Filmmaker Byron Hurt, who perpetuated this practice with the fraternity Omega Psi Phi in the past and has since advocated against it, grapples with each layer of this conversation in his thoughtful and often devastating new documentary, simply titled “Hazing.”
Through compelling interviews with surviving family members and friends, as well as psychologists, scholars, activists and some of Hurt’s own chapter brothers, “Hazing,” premiering Monday on PBS, confronts the many complex truths and helps build a pathway toward reform.
The project called for Hurt to take a hard look at the crisis at hand. Many of us are well aware of the countless hazing cases that make news headlines, only to dissipate from our consciousness too soon afterward. The filmmaker spends time examining some of the ones that left him most affected, as well as their human toll.
“I wanted to take this issue outside of the confines of Greek life, and I wanted to show the scope of it,” Hurt told HuffPost. “So, what I tried to do was zero in on the stories that really made me feel emotionally charged.”
Among those is the case of George Desdunes, whose line brothers at Cornell University allegedly tied up and quizzed the 19-year-old about the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity, forcing him to drink whenever he got a question wrong. He died of acute alcohol poisoning.
There’s also the story of Kristin High, a 22-year-old mother who, along with 24-year-old Kenitha Saafir, drowned in 2002 during an alleged Alpha Kappa Alpha hazing incident at California State University, Los Angeles. The two pledges were forced to do calisthenics on the beach for hours into the night and then walk backward into the ocean, according to a lawsuit from High’s family.
Each story that Hurt and his team revisit in “Hazing” implores the audience, as well as the filmmaker, to reexamine our understanding of the subject.
That way, we can gain a fuller understanding of why people pledge in the first place, the longtime reverence for Greek life and how all of this is too often preyed upon in the guise of a so-called rite of passage that is really a form of brutality and sometimes murder.
This ritual is shaped by contradictions that Hurt acknowledges even in his own life.
“People may question this because of my story, but I love my fraternity,” he said earnestly. “I’m still active. I still pay my dues. I still go to meetings. I still participate in the community service events that we have. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the men in my organization.”
That’s partly due to the inspiration of a family member, as it is for many young, particularly Black men who hope to carry on a loved one’s esteemed legacy.
“My uncle was a member of the organization,” Hurt said. “I looked up to my uncle. My uncle was an upstanding, very active member of Omega Psi Phi. And in many ways I wanted to prove to my uncle that I was man enough and worthy enough to be a member of his organization.”
That complicated understanding of masculinity is enough to fill countless more books. But “Hazing” shows the long and storied history of how that is bolstered socially and familially, as well as popularized in movies like “Dazed and Confused” and “School Daze.”
Hurt is far from the only one wrestling with ingrained, and unarguably archaic, beliefs around hazing. Many institutions have taken a stance against hazing. The annual National Hazing Prevention Week, coming up again later this month, brings attention to this issue as well.
For what it’s worth, other members of Hurt’s fraternity are also actively fighting to change the system from the inside, which is crucial. But that kind of mind reset is not easy. After all, it’s about challenging a legacy that is embedded in collegiate culture.
“At the end of the day, I just feel like we don’t have to be married to carrying on tradition just for the sake of carrying on tradition,” Hurt said.
“There could be new ways of approaching the bonding process and I guess presenting challenges to young people to make them work hard to enter an organization without putting them at risk of dying.”
And Hurt is hopeful that members of the younger generation, who talk more openly about things like mental health than their predecessors ever did, can help lead that charge to effect change.
“They want to be seen as valued and respected, and they want to feel as if their process of initiation was a credible process,” Hurt said.
“What they’re ultimately looking for is respect among the membership of the group. So, how can you do that without putting people at risk of being hurt or killed?”
That question, in and of itself, should make all of us consider why earning respect would be tied to enduring a heinous ritual.
“Hazing” wrestles with this very thought in a striking conversation between Hurt and Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill. The scholar is shown a 2011 video of an alleged Kappa Alpha Psi hazing ritual in which Brent McClanahan II, a 25-year-old single father and student at California State University, Bakersfield, is beaten with whips, canes and paddles.
McClanahan — who is also interviewed in the film, along with his father (another former pledge to Kappa Alpha Psi) — sustained herniated and ruptured disks. He was also temporarily paralyzed from the waist down.
“I can see how that, out of context, could look brutal,” Hill says soberly about the video. “And I’m not out here advocating that people should go through that. What I would say is that people should go through something.”
What he says next really highlights a difficult, prevailing truth: “When I go through the hardest shit in my life, when I’m struggling the most, I look back and say, ‘Because I went through this, I can do that.’”
Hurt understands this statement, as it bears resemblance to his own experience and past feelings.
He then asks Hill, who is himself a member of Kappa Alpha Psi, if that’s really true — whether he actually feels he had to experience what he did to build his stamina for life’s challenges.
Hill’s response? “Maybe!”
But a little over five minutes later in “Hazing,” after we learn more from McClanahan about some of his trauma and physical rehabilitation, Hurt circles back to Hill, who’s given his comments additional thought.
“I struggle with this myself,” Hill says. “I ask myself, how is it that I have far more advanced and progressive conceptions of masculinity, around love and relationships, around sports, around education — around all these others areas?”
He pauses while considering his own question — a good one at that.
“Why is this thing the thing where I tend to have contradiction? I think part of it is that deep down, I did that shit for nothing — that none of it mattered, that none of it meant anything, that I went through all of that and did all of that for something that doesn’t amount to anything.”
Well, both things can be true. The method was at best questionable if Hill still thinks about it today. But the outcome of being a part of the revered fraternity that helps him feel a sense of self? That’s not nothing.
But there’s much nuance here. This is a necessary moment of personal clarity from Hill that echoes the sentiments of many former pledges, including McClanahan and Penn State hazing whistleblower James Vivenzio. The latter two, both interviewed in “Hazing,” are now former members of their fraternities.
Hill’s realization is one of the many truths that you have to think about when wrestling with the hazing crisis, especially in real time. His exchange with Hurt, which the filmmaker described as a “a sincere engagement between two Black men who were grappling with hazing,” made Hurt want to contemplate matters even more.
“It’s symbolic of the conversations that many people who are in these organizations are really dealing with right now,” Hurt said.
“It’s like the old way of doing things versus the new way of doing things, and questioning how much sense does it really make to hold on to certain rituals that can be considered abusive.”
Hurt caught himself with that last comment, proving once again how much the dialogue and the way we talk about hazing must continue to evolve.
“Let me say that again,” Hurt restarted. “That are abusive, and that no longer really serve us other than carrying on a tradition that we believe — or that we’d like to believe — has some value, and that benefits us some way in the long run. You know what I mean?”
Anyone who’s gone through America’s academic system, one of the most traditional institutions we still uphold, could certainly understand that statement. We’re a culture that thrives on tradition, no matter how little it behooves us. Yet we are, slowly but steadily, chipping away at it.
Even for its director, “Hazing” provides a lot more to chew on, including how we change the language around the practice, with the word “hazing” itself coming into question. Pamela Champion, who’s interviewed in the film about her son Robert, a 26-year-old student who died during a marching band hazing incident at Florida A&M in 2011, called for a reckoning.
“In her position, the word ‘hazing’ minimizes the actual act of violence or the act of abuse,” Hurt said. “It softens the reality of it, and that what her son experienced was murder, that these young people murdered her child.”
“When you put the word ‘hazing’ on top of what happened to her child,” he continued, “it automatically makes it less harmful: ’Oh, it was just something that this individual went through by choice, and an unfortunate, tragic accident happened.’”
Actually, it’s more like what Hurt realizes after speaking with Champion: “They are planning physical abuse. And in her son’s case, he was killed because of the beating that he took.”
The misunderstanding that these victims willfully tolerated such atrocities is part of what makes otherwise straightforward cases so challenging to prosecute, preserving an attitude that these are just pranks gone awry.
Hurt had to think about this again when Desdunes’ mother, who is interviewed in “Hazing,” asked him to change the documentary’s original subtitle: “How Badly Do You Want In?”
“She said the subtitle suggests that my son wanted badly enough to be in this organization that he was willing to die, and that’s not true,” Hurt recalled. “So, she respectfully and politely asked me to remove the subtitle, which I did.”
Helping to rewire people’s thinking around the realities of hazing is pivotal for Hurt, who said that seeing hazing as a choice reduces our empathy for the victim.
“Hazing” offers a blueprint for what to think about in relation to the issue, with the understanding that much work still needs to be done. Clearly, it has to be a continued process to which people on all sides are committed. Young people now must continue to advocate for themselves and be honest when they encounter something that violates their personal ethics.
But Greek organizations, coveted by so many young people, must also work to institute new, healthier traditions. As Hurt said, he didn’t have the language to speak up in defiance of what was going on when he was pledging, but he encourages younger generations to do so today.
“I’m always seeking to grow and evolve personally, just as a human being, as an individual person,” he said. “And I want my community to grow. I want us to evolve and challenge certain things that need to be challenged, and to let go of things that are no longer useful to us.”