The Problem with Initiation

As clubs, teams, and all kinds of other extracurricular organizations at Claremont McKenna College wrap up recruiting season, many have started holding “initiations”: bonding activities, often centered on welcoming new members and building team camaraderie.

Both objectives are laudable, but the means to accomplishing these objectives lately have run contrary to the best interest of the CMC community. It goes without saying that hazing and forced drinking are outright wrong and prohibited. And we’d like to believe that the majority of CMC club “initiations” are in no way hazing merely voluntary, social events that celebrate new members and the year ahead. In fact, with CMC’s vibrant social culture and general enthusiasm for extracurricular activities, we should hope that many clubs would plan bonding events outside of their normal meeting time. My concern is that we’ve lost sight of the true objectives and greater context when we partake in “initiation.”

The problem with initiations is that they mimic aspects of hazing even when they are innocuous. For example, club members wearing face paint for club initiations is a nod to hazing behavior and is analogous to activities we commonly condemn – activities detrimental to CMC culture. Encouraging new members to act or drink in a specific manner at certain times of an event is an acknowledgment, though subtle, of ritual and indoctrination.

Why is this a problem? Simply put, the fundamentally inclusive environment of CMC that we all value is unintentionally eroded by organization initiations. Initiations run counter to CMC’s pillars of critical, constructive engagement among the student body. At the heart of hazing and initiation activities is the idea that “true,” exclusive membership to an organization can only be earned by undergoing them. Under almost no other circumstances would a student succumb to such logic.

Associated Students of Claremont McKenna College’s (ASCMC) Campus Organization Chair Will Su believes that the majority of initiations are conducted by highly selective campus organizations.

“I would say actually most of the initiations are from our highest per capita [funded] clubs,” Su said. “So that means the really exclusive and high-funded clubs like Mock Trial, Model UN, those clubs are typically the campus organizations we would hear that there is some type of initiation simply because they go through an extensive application process and I guess there’s some sentiment that they need to be initiated into that small group setting.”

What’s more, initiations create problems for leadership. In hopes of creating the best organization possible, leaders look for healthy, positive interaction. Many of the undesirable activities that accompany initiations undercut these purposes. Indoctrination, ritual, and alcohol divide and limit our ability to connect with our new members – people whom we know very little about. Perhaps these concerns have been muted by overt social pressure, e.g. “#initiation” tags on Facebook newsfeeds, but they are real and deserve reconsideration.

The reason I’m writing this piece is because I don’t think CMC club and team leaders are consciously preventing an inclusive social culture. I truly believe that most clubs conduct initiations in the spirit of the admirable objectives of team bonding and fun. But I would encourage them to reexamine their initiations and reframe their treatment of new members in a way that doesn’t echo destructive social phenomena – phenomena that students would reject at face-value.

Writer’s Note: The Claremont Independent requested an interview with Dean of Students Mary Spellman on the issue of club initiation/hazing culture at CMC. Dean Spellman declined to comment on an opinion piece. Dean Spellman also declined to meet off the record with a writer to informally discuss the subject.

[Related: “Initiation in Moderation“]

8 thoughts on “The Problem with Initiation”

  1. I wrote a whole comment and it got deleted so I’ll just shortly say that your using of “ritual” and “indoctrination” as something that is inherently bad shows your ignorance of their true nature and history. Ritual and indoctrination have been used to create shared group identity since the first political communities thousands of years ago. I’d challenge you to show me a group you are apart of that is completely void of any ritual or subtle indoctrination (it is an inherent part of being apart of a group). The contention that “ritual” and “indoctrination” “limit our ability to connect with our new members” simply makes no sense (I could argue you on alcohol too, which has been used as a social lubricant for thousands of years, but I’ll give it to you for the sake of argument).

    1. I ask what other harmful practices were thousands of years old and only justified through “tradition”?

      We come to college to challenge long-held institutions and find better justification for their perpetuation.

    2. “Ritual and indoctrination have been used to crate shared group identity since the first political communities thousands of years ago.” So, according to you, men in power should have *** with young boys in order to assert their societal powers, as was done in ancient greece?

  2. Also just because an activity is reminiscent of something else doesn’t make it inherently bad, you even admit that they are themselves innocuous; so essentially you don’t want people to paint their faces because it makes you uncomfortable. Unless you have some data about current CMC initiations or an actual personal experience that legitimates this view, you should recant it, or at least make a better argument.

    Some initial readings on ritual and indoctrination in political identity formation: “Nations and Nationalism” – Ernest Gellner Imagined Communities – Benedict Anderson

  3. Your ad-hominem attacks are completely missing my point. I’m obviously not defending every ritual and tradition ever created and no where in my argument do I pretend to do so. What I am doing is defending the role that ritual and tradition play in groups as something that is not inherently evil and is in fact absolutely necessary for a group to exist. Are some rituals and traditions bad? Obviously and they often change, no political group is permanent. But that doesn’t logically lead to Marina’s argument that rituals and traditions are a-priori evil. Is voting itself evil because it is a tradition that used to be reserved for white land owning males? No.

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