04/12/2012 11:02 am ET Updated Jun 12, 2012

Why Dartmouth Should Not Abolish Hazing

I want to start by saying that Andrew Lohse, Ravital Segal, and all members past, present, and future of Dartmouth fraternities and sororities should never have to submit to the horrors of the hazing that Andrew and Ravi describe. On the most basic of human levels it is disgusting.

But I also want to remind everyone of this: Every single fraternity and sorority member volunteers to join his or her respective organization. And not only do they volunteer to join, they pay to join (I'll ignore all the class implications of the variance in different organizations' dues. Research and ask about it on your own though, it's fascinating).

So, people are paying a lot of money -- for the sake of argument, let's say $200 per month -- to get vomited on or forced to drink an astronomical amount of alcohol.

Suddenly, all the stories take on a new dimension. The reality of the situation is horribly twisted, but straightforward when objectively put in one sentence: these members paid to get hazed and now are also paying the psychological repercussions.

So what causes intelligent people to make such a bizarre choice?

If could be what Ravi mentioned in her blog post, the effect that Milgram showed in his study, which was "that in certain environments, most people will obey dangerous instructions, despite any personal misgivings."

However, if you take a look at the other 40+ variations that Milgram did on his baseline study, you can reach a deeper understanding of human nature and of why Dartmouth should not abolish fraternities and sororities, or even hazing for that matter. Before I go further, a huge thanks to WNYC Radiolab for their episode, "The Bad Show," that talks about some of these variations and their interpretations -- I do not claim to have made these interpretations myself and only take credit for applying them to this situation.

In one of the Milgram studies, some participants who were told to continue shocking a (unbeknownst to them) fake victim after the victim started screaming needed a bit more prodding. The study's administrators could say one of four prompts, the last one being "you have no other choice." As soon as the participants heard this, they stopped shocking the victims 100 percent of the time. By telling the participants they did not have a choice, the administrators were calling to attention something the participants had forgotten in the moment: that they actually did have a choice. While certain pressures and situations can make someone forget this fact, it is always true. You have a choice.

In the exit interviews for the study, participants said that in order for the experiment to be successful, their act of shocking the fake victims had to go on. For the sake of research and science, experiments of this sort were vital. To them, their actions served the greater cause of science, and so were worthy actions for them to choose, even if it meant doing something difficult. In fact, doing that difficult thing made the cause even greater because of the sacrifice that went into it.

So we have two variations that lead down different paths: one in which people are told they have no choice and thus remember they can choose to stop hurting another person, and one in which people very consciously choose to hurt another person because it serves a greater purpose.

Let's focus on the latter point first. The reason people do things to others with which they might not agree is that fraternities and sororities excel at perpetuating an overwhelming feeling of a greater purpose (being a member of, building, and protecting an organization and its members). Fraternity and sorority members never come out and say that you have to act a certain way, they just make the idea of the greater purpose so strong that anything difficult you do can be attributed to serving and strengthening that greater cause. This is what sways people to act, and then to stay silent about it.

This subtle silence is what allows people to forget what they never should: they always have a choice.

I too was in a sorority. We were also hazed. We were hazed with whipped cream and seltzer water (horrors!). We were told "Drink!... but only if you want to". We were certainly not the most popular sorority on campus, and in fact, were probably the least (Sorry sisters, though we know it's true, it's still painful to write. Please know that I don't regret a moment of my time with you).

So why did I choose what some might call a "lame" sorority? During rush, I asked sisters in different houses whether it was even worth it to join any sorority. I chose the house I was in because they gave me the answer I didn't know I was looking for until I heard it: "I like it for xyz personal reason, but at the end of the day you have to decide what's best for you." I could tell they genuinely meant it, and I felt no pressure to choose to be in this group or any other. I felt the space I needed to make the choice that was right for me. I am still friends to this day with that sorority sister who reminded me the choice was mine. She is just one example of why I know I made the right choice for me, and an example of why just talking openly about something allows people to act in accordance with what is right for them.

I ask students and alumni of Dartmouth to consider the motto "vox clamantis in deserto" -- the voice of one crying in the wilderness. Perhaps it is not just the wilderness of the White Mountains to which we should apply the motto, but also to any wilderness in which we might find ourselves the single crying voice. From our school's founding we have been encouraged to be that voice. Let's continue to think, speak, and act that way.

Abolishing hazing from the top down won't solve our problem. After all, since when did the majority of young adults ever want to listen to older adults or the imposed rules of a governing body? What the administration and other people can do is remind students that they have a choice about the values they choose, how they act on those values, and how to give others space to choose and act on their values. This is another form of the true learning that can (but, sadly, often does not) happen in college -- learning about oneself. This knowledge is the other thing that fraternities and sororities can rob a person of, and that theft equals the physical grossness of the acts Andrew and Ravi depict in their stories.

It's not for a group to decide what happens next, it is up to individual students to find their own values and discover the wisdom that comes from standing up for themselves and those values. They must find their true vox and give others the respect and space to find their own, as well.