A warrior code gone wrong
Initiation practices are all too often brutal, bizarre and wholly irrelevant.
The 13-year-old boy was home for a holiday, having just finished his first term at a prestigious boys' boarding school. His parents had brought him to therapy because he was "just not himself" - he was withdrawn, moody and had lost weight. While the boy at first insisted everything was okay, it soon emerged that senior boys had made him crawl naked over concrete, had rubbed Deep Heat over his genitals and forced him to drink what he thought was urine.
The boy had been "initiated", playing his small part in an often agonising ritualised drama that has been going on for centuries.
Sambia people in New Guinea did it by thrusting wooden sticks up the nostrils of five-year-old boys. In prisons, some gang initiates still do it by stabbing prison warder s. In the Russian army, some non-commissioned officers do it by branding recruits. At universities, undergraduates occasionally die while doing it. Some school sports teams do it by stripping, shaving and beating each other.
The question is, why?
Why do these kinds of practices survive in the 21st century? When we test someone's right to join our fraternity by cursing, assaulting or humiliating them, we are doing it to the previous version of ourselves. We were once that high school kid, that freshman. Yet we stand in line to pass it on to the next generation.
Communities have always conducted rites of passage both religious, such as bar mitzvahs, circumcisions and christenings, and secular, like 21st birthday parties and matric dances, which take young people through a journey from childhood to adulthood. Today these acts of initiation range from character-building and profound, through the playful or silly, to the abusive and frankly illegal.
The original purpose of initiation often gets lost. The word "initiation" derives from Latin for "entrance" or "beginning", literally "a going in". Historically, these rituals helped prepare individuals psychologically, physically and symbolically for the world they had to live in. But out of context, and taken too far, they constitute ritualised group abuse and institutionalised bullying.
Once they take hold in a group, harsh initiation practices become part of that culture and can be difficult to uproot. More than one school head has discovered that their attempt to moderate initiation practices is actively resisted by pupils, who wish to pass on the same trial by fire they underwent.
Often initiations are defended as arduous tests of strength and character, teaching humility and toughening up or weeding out the weak, the argument goes. However, most of us school our children to prepare them for the 21st century workplace, not for the rigours of the battlefield or a survivalist lifestyle.
Even in the military, brutal initiations are controversial. Sean Renaud, a New Zealand academic who researched the Chechen wars, comments on the impact of initiation practices on the Russian army when they fought in Chechnya. Those units that had the harshest versions of initiation were the first to fall apart under enemy fire and desert. And how well did our Kamp Staaldraad warriors do in the 2003 Rugby World Cup?
As parents, we might feel anxious about our children's initiations. There are a couple of questions you might want to ask:
- Is your child being initiated or hazed? Initiation is intended to be a meaningful, controlled and ritualised ceremony. Hazing is just abusing and humiliating someone who is new;
- What is the purpose of the initiation? How will running through a line of stick-wielding verbal abusers prepare your child for a future job as a doctor, IT specialist or plumber?;
- For boys, is initiation merely a way of forcing them into a stereotypical mould of masculinity? Being tough and controlling one's emotions is just one version of masculinity. A 21st century man has just as great a need to solve problems and contribute to nation building; and
- Do we tolerate the practice because we believe in it, or are we denying the pain, vulnerability and humiliation of our own initiation experiences?
Parents must make up their own minds about initiations, but should do so from a position of knowledge. Your child is ultimately your responsibility, so insist that a school is transparent about initiation practices and that you will not tolerate mindless hazing.
Lastly, speak out about the need for initiation practices to move with the times. Isn't it time initiations focused more on collaboration and community building through problem solving, creativity and strategic thinking?
- Ancer is a Johannesburg-based psychologist