By Brandon Britton
Lake City, Florida
My dad is no Matthew McConaughey, and yet I think of my daddy whenever I catch a few minutes of the film “Dazed and Confused.” This movie, which gave birth to the McConaughey awright-awright-awright mantra, begins on the last day of school in May 1976, which was when my daddy graduated from Bodenham High School in Pulaski, Tennessee. The movie was released in September of 1993, the year I began my senior year at Giles County High School. The movie begins with a group of seniors plotting to haze incoming freshmen boys by paddling them, which was very similar to how my high school career began. Sort of.
In my tiny hometown of Pulaski, on the last day of school, the rising seniors would hunt down each incoming freshmen and use electric hair clippers to shave an “F” into his hair. As my eighth grade year drew to a close, I was terrified of this looming initiation. For years, from the window of bus No. 102, which I rode to my Big Mamma’s house, I witnessed juniors hop out of cars to chase down eighth graders and pin them to the ground. I imagine these “rites of passage” sound outright barbaric and borderline criminal to those of my children’s generation. Maybe they were. As the ’80s came to a close and the ’90s were in bloom, most of those rituals gradually died out, and looking back, I’m glad they did.
As much as I feared being held down by a gang of seniors as they violently shaved my head, it never happened to me, which oddly enough created a different kind of fear — that I wasn’t important enough to get hazed, that I didn’t even register on the social scale. I was invisible. Perhaps this is why, four years later, I responded so enthusiastically to an invitation to “rush” a fraternity.
Early in my freshman year at the University of North Alabama, I got an invitation in my mailbox to attend a mixer at a fraternity. I had never considered joining a fraternity, but I knew they represented something more than what I had. Fraternity membership was a status symbol. It represented the “in-crowd,” the cool kids, wealth, influence, power — all things I never felt I had in high school. Now it was being offered to me. They were reaching out to me. They wanted me. At the mixer, I felt like they were pursuing me, and I learned their acceptance could be intoxicating.
I don’t know how they knew me or anything about me (one of them probably worked in the admissions office), but they knew things like my ACT score and that I had gotten a few baseball scholarship offers in high school. The fact that they knew these things about me added to the mystique and it connected with something deep inside me. I felt wanted. The “in-crowd” was opening the door and inviting me to join them, and I ate it up.
The following weeks were filled with the parties and perks of Greek life. The fraternity house was like a mansion. It was an enormous three-story house with a basement that had a bar, giant-screen TV, deafening sound system, along with pingpong and pool tables. The backyard was nearly a regulation beach volleyball court, with a net that bore the brand of Corona beer. I, the only child of teenage parents who grew up in places with names like Chicken Creek and Dog Branch, was accepted by the cool kids. I felt like an underdog character from one of the John Hughes movies I grew up watching. It was the reverse of high school. In high school, you got hazed by the older guys, and then they let you in. But here they let you so they can haze you. You get a taste of what they can give you before you learn the price you have to pay to get it.
Fortunately, I got out before things got out of control, though I can’t say the same for my roommate and childhood best friend, who suffered through many of the indignities of being a pledge before he too decided to call it quits.
I read a story that reminded me just how lucky I was to have avoided the degradation and violence often associated with hazing. Seven students at Louisiana State University, all members of the same fraternity, were arrested and charged with battery, false imprisonment, and criminal hazing. These seven are accused of subjecting pledges to cigarette burnings, kicks, punches, and blows with a metal pipe. With the physical abuse came allegations of actions designed to degrade the pledges. Pledges said they were used as human furniture, forced to participate in a “slap game,” doused in gasoline, immersed in ice tanks and sprayed with water, and made to lie face down on broken glass, at which point others urinated on them.
Today we see an ongoing dialogue about “toxic masculinity.” I may not be qualified to define it, but I know it when I see it, and I’ve seen it in middle school, in high school, on college campuses, and in locker rooms my entire life. Any potential “camaraderie” this type of abasement produces is greatly overshadowed by the psychological, physical, and emotional harm that comes from it. Dishonoring someone who is weaker, more vulnerable, or socially inferior to you doesn’t make you a man; it makes you a bully at least, a criminal at worst.
Where did these rituals — designed to dominate, humiliate, produce fear, instill shame and exert power, all in the name of camaraderie, community, and belonging — originate? Perhaps they are vestigial rites of passage left over from our tribal ancestors “weeding out” those who could not endure the difficult conditions of battle or hold their ground when facing down a bear. You would think these rituals would have no place in a civilized society, yet some groups still see value in them. They ask who will “stand with their brothers” when there are accusations of sexual abuse or other illegal or unethical activities from outsiders.
Perhaps their methods are designed to “weed out” those who would say, “This is not okay,” or “I’m reporting this to the authorities.” It’s likely the pledges remain because those who endure the abuse to the end are rewarded with initiation into the group. Having endured it and come through the other side, they are now in a position of power and able to exert superiority over someone else, perhaps for the first time in their lives. “You are one of us now,” which typically means you will be required to perpetuate the cycle. The recipient becomes the administrator. These hazing rituals continue to be perpetuated generation after generation by those who know firsthand the fear and shame they bring. Dignity in the present is traded for superiority, power, and recognition in the future.
These days, I’m far removed from freshman initiations and fraternity hazings, but I can’t seem to escape the scorn of the “us vs. them” mindset and the initiations that usually come with it. We may not shave an F in someone’s hair, but we attach other labels. Democrat or Republican, pro-life or pro-choice, liberal or conservative, resident or illegal, black or white. Labels mark the boundaries between “us” and “them.” Once we know where those borders are located, we can erect walls that can only be traversed through the performance of rituals or rites of passage designed to strip up of our identity or our culture or our heritage or our independence — and replace them with groupthink and conformity. This is what “we” do, this is what “we” believe, this is where “we” live, this is how “we” vote, this is how “we” speak.
Sometimes, I’m on the receiving end of these attitudes. Sometimes, I observe them being perpetrated on others. And, sadly, sometimes I’m the one initiating them. Whichever the case, I always suffer from it.
Don’t we all?
These days I’m not afraid of being left out. I’m afraid of making someone else feel excluded, unwanted, or unworthy. In a world of wall-building, inclusion can be scary, especially if you’re not used to it. You might even find that people who consider you “one of us” might start viewing you as “one of them” if you open your mind, your heart or your home to others. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t, but it’d be a lot cooler if you did.