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Dehumanizing others makes us less human

September 8, 2018 GMT

Ah, it’s September. A new college semester has begun, and it’s the chance for teenage freshmen students to prove they are ready to transition from boyhood to manhood by joining a fraternity.

They will endure verbal abuse, ridicule, humiliation and demeaning treatment in order to be accepted by “the brothers.”

I was one of them.

Soon after enrolling as a freshman at Wilbur Wright College in Chicago, some 65-plus years ago, I was invited to join a fraternity. I was thrilled to be asked, eager to feel I belonged. It was called Mu Omega Beta (the MOB for short) — very much a social fraternity.

Every Wednesday night there was a mixer — a beer party with a sorority at a local beer hall. Many of the frat brothers were Korean War veterans who took a brotherly interest in me, making sure I got rides to all the mixers and plenty of beer.

No one cared that I was four years under the legal drinking age. I learned to play the chug-a-lug game like everyone else, drinking down a full bottle of beer without taking a breath. I learned to recite the Greek alphabet, memorize the names of all the members, address them as “Sir” and do their bidding.

We carried around a Pledge Book wherein were recorded demerits by members who determined that we were either not sufficiently prepared with our responses to them or not courteous enough in our manner.

Demerits could be erased by special acts of kindness toward a brother or, more often, by submitting to a paddling, one swat for each demerit from the pledge’s own paddle, at the Friday fraternity meeting.

“Hell Night” happened on a Saturday night near the end of the semester.

Pledges were blindfolded and driven to a deserted house out in the country owned by the parents of one of the members. Once there, we were obliged to strip naked and be subjected to several hours of physical and verbal abuse and humiliation.

Our testicles were painted with wintergreen oil. Globs of Limburger cheese were smeared across our upper lips, under the nose. We were grilled on the historical significance of “The Message to Garcia” — which I have long since forgotten.

A wrong answer or discourteous remark from a pledge resulted in that pledge being told, “Assume the position.”

The “position” was to bend over, grasp one’s ankles, and make ready to receive a swat from a paddle and say, “Thank you, sir.” Failure to say, “Thank you, sir” earned you another swat.

I remember one member, L.D. Green, who swatted me so hard, I fell over. He considered this an affront and obliged me to take another swat, down on all fours.

Why did we do this? Why did we allow it to happen? We wanted to belong, to be accepted, and we were willing to be intimidated, humiliated and abused.

The practice of hazing has been around for more than 2,000 years. Educational institutions, sports teams, even the military have permitted initiation practices involving physical abuse, practical jokes, excessive alcohol consumption, and other humiliating and dangerous activities that are “justified” as rites of passage for countless young adults.

As we have come to learn in recent years, such initiation practices are cowardly, cruel and even dangerous.

According to Franklin College journalism professor Hank Nuwer, more than 200 university hazing deaths have occurred since 1838, with 40 deaths between 2007 and 2017 alone.

I believe it is time for all fraternities to end these dehumanizing hazing practices and to act instead as positive role models and mentors to their new members, welcoming them into the brotherhood with kindness and fraternal love.

And that’s how I see it.

Larry P. Johnson is an author and international motivational speaker. You may contact him via email at larjo1@prodigy.net or visit his website at www.mexicobytouch.com